“The Far Away Brothers” is impeccably timed, intimately reported and beautifully expressed. Markham brings people and places to rumbling life; she has that rare ability to recreate elusive, subjective experiences — whether they’re scenes she never witnessed or her characters’ interior psychological states — without taking undue liberties. In many ways, her book is reminiscent of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s “Random Family.” It’s about teenagers who raise themselves. They pine for support. They’re traumatized in ways they can barely articulate.
Readers follow the Flores twins as they make the decision, at 17, to leave El Salvador; undertake the grueling passage to the United States; and settle in Oakland, Calif., where their older brother, Wilber, has been eking out a living, having made the trek to America himself years before. (It was in Oakland that Markham met the twins. She was a program coordinator at their high school.) The twins suddenly lead the lives of both children and adults, balancing jobs with gym class, legal paperwork with texts from jealous girlfriends.
We also follow the travails of the Flores clan back home. Their experiences offer a window onto the deterioration of a nation.
One of the finest virtues of “The Far Away Brothers” is that it makes vibrantly real an issue that some see only as theoretical, illuminating aspects of the immigrant experience normally hidden from view. The obstacles the twins faced in getting their visas could be paradoxical, diabolical and sometimes downright ridiculous. Who would have known that their fate could ultimately hinge on finding a working fax machine in a small town in El Salvador? And on getting a signature from their parents, when the cruelty of their parents was the “official” reason they fled? (The real reason: A homicidal uncle was threatening to kill Ernesto, and enlisted the aid of a miniature goon squad to do the deed.)
It is startling, too, to learn the many ways immigration takes its toll on families. Wilber seethes at his twin brothers for imposing on his time, consuming his money and disrupting his plans. “Just when things had started to stabilize and he was thinking about going back to school,” Markham writes, “his brothers appeared, needing food, a place to sleep and Bob…