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A Better Sort of Tragedy

April 8, 2011

Barbara Trapido (1982) Brother of the More Famous Jack

Philosophy Professor Jacob Goldman is interviewing Katherine, the narrator of this novel, for a university place.


‘I’ll be frank with you,’ he said. ‘I had you up here because your Head’s report on you is so unfavourable, it leads me to suspect you may be somewhat brighter than the Head. You may of course be no more than an opinionated trouble-maker. Which do you think you are?’

‘Sometimes I show off,’ I said.

‘Me too,’ Jacob said.


Katherine is eighteen when she is drawn into Jacob’s family. His wife Jane becomes her closest friend, and Roger, the oldest of their six children, becomes her lover.


After finishing this book I felt I had been with a group of real people. Every character provoked a variety of emotional responses – affection, annoyance, anxiety, sadness. Katherine is a particularly engaging character, who reminded me of Grace, the protagonist in Toni Jordan’s Addition. However Grace is less complex, and does not move amongst a plethora of distinctive characters as Katherine does.


Trapido develops her characters in many ways, but dialogue is her most effective tool. Each character has a different voice, which reveals what sort of person they are. Each reacts to the others in their own way, and one immediately feels the undercurrents running between them. In one set piece, a long and lively conversation involving ten people, Trapido tells us much about the participants and the relationships between them.


In some ways the book appears slapdash. The reader sometimes has to stop and work out which character a stray pronoun refers to. The tense switches back and forth between past and present in what seems a random fashion. But these become minor matters when we are caught up by the exuberance of the writing and the force of the characters.


The book is both a comedy and a tragedy. It is extremely funny, mainly because the characters are clever or witty or wilful, and respond in amusing ways to one another’s foibles. But when tragedy comes, it is more moving because of the delight we have already felt in knowing the people affected. In a later Trapido novel, Juggling, the protagonist writes in a university essay on Shakespeare: “The comedies are a better sort of tragedy because they make us laugh and because the characters stay alive. Survival is admirable. It’s more difficult than death because it takes more energy and guile.”


As a comedy Brother of the More Famous Jack is “a better sort of tragedy.”


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