Coming up with a short list of books that capture the experience of siblinghood is like trying to determine the perfect names for six horses you’ve never met, or cooking a romantic dinner for a stranger with several undisclosed food allergies—an oddly personal, high-stakes task. Every family is radically different in ways that are opaque to outsiders; the nuances of my relationship with my sibling may shed little light on your relationship with yours.
In some ways, these bonds are like any other: Mutual vulnerability, trust, and experiences can build intimacy, though there is no guarantee that that closeness will last. Yet the unique feeling of sharing parents, or of growing up together, makes this relationship unlike any other. For many of us, our links with our siblings will be the longest of our lives. My parents all but superglued my brother and me together when we were kids, insisting that a day may come when all we have is each other.
My forthcoming novel, All-Night Pharmacy, is about two sisters with a close but toxic bond, navigating addictions to prescription drugs and to each other. I’ve always been drawn to books that capture a certain spirit of siblinghood: namely, how our siblings can feel less like people freely roaming the world than like extensions of our own bodies—an essential organ or a wound, perhaps both. These six books speak to the complexity of having siblings, in all its rapture and mess.
If I Survive You, by Jonathan Escoffery
Escoffery’s debut collection of linked stories is a tale of biting sibling rivalry and a moving family saga about the immigrant experience and living between cultures in Miami. Our American-born protagonist, Trelawny, clashes with his Jamaican-born older brother, Delano, in their disparate pursuits of financial stability, parental love, and masculinity. Delano, the clear favorite, follows in his father’s footsteps by supporting his wife and children as a landscaper, while Trelawny pursues a college education. But after the recession, Trelawny’s degree fails to protect him from living out of his car and working a slew of precarious jobs (predatory building management, Craigslist sexual race play). Escoffery is a wordsmith who keeps us laughing even as he runs his characters through capitalism’s meat grinder. “Oh, thank god,” Trelawny thinks upon receiving yet another death threat at work—this time in the form of an anonymous drawing of a lynched man—and realizing it’s addressed to “El Jefe”: “I handed the paper to my manager and said, ‘It’s for you.’” When the siblings’ fortunes are flipped, Trelawny must decide whether to be a better brother to Delano than he’s been to him. The choice is a sour one, laced with that particular ache that only bone-deep disappointment engenders.
Black Aperture, by Matt Rasmussen
“Nothing ever absolutely has to happen,” Rasmussen writes in this poetry collection, which circles the circumstances and aftermath of his brother’s suicide. “When our hero sits / on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol / on his nightstand, you have to believe he might / not use it.” It’s a bitter paradox: We have to imagine a world where the gun might not fire, even as Black Aperture reminds us that it can and will. Rasmussen resists schmaltz at every turn, opting for language so sharp and spare that you could never accuse him of reaching for pathos. The poem “Reverse Suicide” inverts the sequence of events on the day of the suicide, echoing how trauma replays in our minds in surreal loops: “Each snowflake stirs before / lifting into the sky as I / learn you won’t be dead.” We don’t get a clear sense of the relationship the speaker and his brother had while he was alive. But the book’s second poem, “After Suicide,” tells us everything we need to know: “I wanted to put my finger / into the hole / feel the smooth channel / he escaped through.” The speaker’s acknowledgment that his brother needed to escape his body, coupled with his desire to study—or jam—the bullet hole anyway, smacked me like a brick.
Normal Family, by Chrysta Bilton
This memoir’s stunning premise somehow manages not to overshadow its lovely prose. Bilton and her sister were raised by a zany lesbian mother, who paid a handsome stranger she met at a hair salon to donate his sperm to her. Bilton’s father, despite promising not to donate sperm to anyone else, secretly goes on to make his living as one of the California Cryobank’s most requested donors. Bilton’s half siblings probably number in the hundreds, and she describes meeting 35 of them in her vibrant roller coaster of a book. Her unpredictable but always-loving mother falls in with several cults, pyramid schemes, and addictions that have Bilton and her sister oscillating between living in mansions with a menagerie of exotic pets and straddling homelessness. There are perfectly ludicrous celebrity encounters, anecdotes that push the nature-versus-nurture debate to extremes, and a bevy of unearthed family secrets (Bilton’s mother finally spills the beans about Bilton’s half siblings after discovering that her daughter may be dating her half brother). Normal Family will, in the very best way, leave you wondering what either of those words actually means.
When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz
In a 2015 conversation with the poetry-interview site Divedapper, Diaz said, “You can’t tell the truth because nobody will believe the truth if we tell it to them.” She advises her students to reimagine their stories to allow the reader to better glimpse their truth—from a slant. The truth, in Diaz’s case, highlights the vibrant personalities she grew up with in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. Her debut poetry collection, about a woman navigating desire and the fracturing of her family as her brother falls deeper into meth addiction, uses the fantastical to explore the tenderness and violence of love in its many forms. Judas; Mojave Barbie; and the half-man, half-hummingbird god Huitzilopochtli are among the book’s many supporting characters. Diaz’s signature dark humor captures the absurdity of caring for someone you are losing in real time: “This is my brother and I need a shovel / to love him,” Diaz writes, shortly before imagining his funeral. That’s followed by part three of the book, which contains some of the most sensual, aching odes to an unnamed beloved I’ve ever read (“there is no apple, / there is only this woman / who is a city of apples, / there is only me licking the juice / from the streets of her palm”). I was shocked to learn that Diaz was advised to cut the pieces about desire. When we eventually return to the brother, we do so with the love poems’ reminder that, beyond our pain, there is still a tomorrow.
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
This is the funniest book you will ever read about a beloved sibling’s unquenchable desire to end her own life. Toews’s tragicomic novel follows the narrator, Yoli, and her internationally acclaimed pianist sister, Elf, as they navigate an unresolvable impasse: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” Toews writes. The sisters have been close since their Mennonite childhood, during which, the narrator notes, “therapy was seen as lower even than bestiality because at least bestiality is somewhat understandable in isolated farming communities.” Where Black Aperture ruminates on the speaker’s powerlessness to prevent his sibling’s suicide, All My Puny Sorrows offers its protagonist a frightening invitation. Elf asks Yoli to take her to a Swiss clinic that would assist in ending her life, and Yoli must then decide whether helping Elf die would be the ultimate act of devotion. Off-kilter humor aside, All My Puny Sorrows is clear-eyed in its articulation of fierce sibling love. “I’m relieved that Elf wants her glasses,” Yoli thinks after one of Elf’s suicide attempts. “That there is something she wants to see.”
Win Me Something, by Kyle Lucia Wu
Wu’s enthralling debut novel follows a 24-year-old Chinese American woman named Willa, who makes a living nannying Bijou, the 9-year-old daughter of a wealthy white family in New York. Willa’s parents divorced and started new families when she was a child, and Willa grew up feeling like a vestige of their past lives. Willa’s unspoken resentment over being abandoned keeps her relationship with her three half siblings distant. Their absence is a hole in her life, and her tender care for her charge—a proxy sister—is deeply affecting. Bijou’s family become surrogates for the loving and prosperous home life Willa was denied, but the fit is awkward, as they are clueless about Willa’s experiences with racism and their own whiteness. Win Me Something reminds us that the narratives we tell ourselves can be just as maladaptive as they are self-protective. Wu masterfully implicates Willa in her failure to craft the life she longs for without denying the traumas that lead to her inaction. When, toward the end of the novel, Willa accepts her half sister’s invitation to have lunch, she realizes, “Maybe it wasn’t that everyone else was more loved, but that everyone else tried. Or that if you knew you were loved, it was easier to try.”
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