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Jennifer Johnson: A Haunting Novel of Childhood Trauma

A Review of The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole

Owl Canyon Press, 2021


The Brothers Silver takes a hard look at how children who endure growing up in dysfunctional families, suffer dire consequences and are left to a lifetime of personal struggles. In the case of The Brothers Silver, which debut novelist Marc Jampole admits has many autobiographical elements, two brothers, Jules and Leon Silver, are both full of promise. But at a young age, the boys must reinvent themselves and navigate the rough road ahead with a broken parental compass and a fractured sense of their own self-worth.

The story of their mother, Ethel, herself a childhood victim of sexual abuse, runs parallel to that of Sylvia Plath, another mother and victim of suicide. Ethel gives birth to her boys during the 1950s. She is trying to live the American housewife dream by marrying a man who will take care of her. Instead, she finds herself alone and struggling with clinical depression. Plath, too, was abandoned by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. Hughes runs off with his lover, and Plath is left to care for her two young children in a small flat in London with no telephone.

Ethel becomes overwhelmed by a multitude of new responsibilities that spell out mental and physical exhaustion, which is, perhaps, apart from genetics, the catalyst for the onset of an otherwise latent, full-blown mental illness. She suddenly must work full time to make ends meet and put food on the table for her two boys, whom she truly seems to love. She gets fired from menial jobs. Without child support, a mother to help her, or modern-day conveniences, she ends up sprawled out on a couch in her basement at her wits’ end. Her older son Jules recognizes her need for help, but Ethel’s own unresolved guilt causes her to lash out at him:

“You didn’t do the dishes, ungrateful child. You did them to show me how bad a mom I am.”

Ironically, Ed, who beats her in front of the children, is the one with the power to put her into a succession of mental institutions where maybe he himself should be incarcerated. Plath claimed that Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage, and she, too, spent time in mental institutions, dependent on anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

Ethel is prescribed hundreds of pills for anxiety, and, after overdosing on them numerous times–sadly witnessed by her sons—they end up killing her. The fact that she was prescribed so many of these addictive pills is testament to the system’s failure to treat her. Year later, Hughes actually argued in regard to Plath’s suicide that the pills she was taking were known to prompt suicidal feelings.

Just like Plath, Ethel kept a diary. But Plath, unlike Ethel, was able to go to college and fulfill her dreams of becoming a published writer. Ethel’s diary represents perhaps the only peek into the aspirations of a woman who never got to live her dreams. One criticism of The Brothers Silver is that Ethel is barely heard from—she gets to narrate one chapter that is little more than a page in length. I yearned to hear more from her and less from her sadistic husband. Ed is the one who is a danger to the children. In one scene, he purposely holds the toddler Jules under water:

Without fright, I bend my legs to spring up at the last moment before the water crowns, but my father’s strapping-strong arm holds me down. A wall of cold water crushes me like one hollow-sounding, stinging slap at my whole body, head to toe…My flapping mouth swallows part of the flow and I start to blow out water and cry.

After Ethel’s death, the novel continues to trace the lives of the brothers into adulthood. We witness how loss manifests itself in the men Jules and Leon eventually become. Although their inner lives are more similar than they suspect, their outer lives become increasingly different. Jules ultimately decides to leave an aimless life behind and head… “straight to Straightsville after shedding all my freight—events, people, feelings,” settling for a steady job, a wife and child, and a home in the suburbs. Leon revels in being a drug-dependent deadbeat forever, no matter what encouragement he received from others to use his academic and musical talents. He remains single and promiscuous, jumps from job to job, and chooses to live in a teepee in the middle of nowhere. His attitude:

I am the god of the here and now. Follow me. I never think about the future. I never think about the past…

Is Leon’s fall from a ladder later in the novel an accident or not? Sylvia Plath’s younger son, Nicholas Hughes, commits suicide. He was a passionate professor of fisheries and ocean science who never married. Did these highly capable younger sons who grew up with such similar family dynamics—one actual, one fictional—meet the same fate for the same reasons? Plath’s older daughter, Frieda Hughes, still alive today, is an accomplished children’s book writer, poet, and artist. Jules remains alive at the end of The Brothers Silver, too, having made a comfortable life for himself despite his continual search for solace. Did they survive because they were the first-born? “I felt my parents were stolen,” Frieda Hughes once said.

The Brothers Silver is a haunting novel about the human survival instinct that employs both rhythmic prose and poetry to move the story along. 

Copyright 2021 Jennifer Johnson

Marc Jampole

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