Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell is a novel that bleeds the line between novel and historical fact. It’s written in a style that traces the tragic story of Branwell Brontë and composites it through the lives of those involved, from golden child and hope of the family to drunken dissolute, all while the politics of family allegiance drift and Branwell falls further into oblivion. This hallucinatory narrative shifts back and forth, switches tense, shows us one reading only to challenge it later, and ultimately unfolds a tale embroidered of speculation, suspicion, and earnest confession, where one is never certain of the absolute truths.
The novel feels invitingly Nineteenth Century, a lost Jane Eyre, yet contemporary and pluralistic. Like Victorian novels it follows the main character from early childhood until death, but here the voice is many blended perspectives. The result is a dream or hallucination that feels true and harvested from the period. I’ve always had a soft spot for old British novels like Jude the Obscure, Mill on the Floss, or even Moll Flanders. This has the same sense of inevitable doom, with damp decayed surfaces, but the success of Branwell is that it doesn’t mimic these other works. It’s not a copy of style, but something hybrid and new hewn out of the pieces of something else, halfway between poetry, biopic, and a novel.