Animal Magic: A Brother's Story, By Andrew Barrow

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The Independent Culture

No stranger book than this will appear this year – with the possible exception of Andrew Barrow's deceased brother Jonathan's novel The Queue, which sees publication in May, after more than 40 years of neglect. Barrow's account of his younger brother's death in a car crash, aged 22, alongside his fiancée, is as eminently unclassifiable as it is moving, memorable and itself not a little insane. Barrow has lived with the undiminished influence of his brother across four decades; in the best sense, Animal Magic proves how stubbornly unconquerable and indecipherable grief can be. Granted, the memoir is scarcely eccentric compared to the manuscript Jonathan left behind, - extensively quoted, and analysed with the zeal of fraternal obsessiveness.

It may strike the reader as absurd to make connections between Jonathan's fantastical fiction, featuring a whole cast of animal "characters" including the dachshund Mary, who is somewhat anthropomorphised and carries a scandalous secret. Visions of male rape abound, practised by the most unlikely creatures (pigeons?) or else upon them (hens). If any period comparison exists, it is to Joe Orton's (then unpublished) fictions, or his failed script for the Beatles, Up Against It. The Queue shares Orton's anarchic spirit, and was similarly inspired by a range of private demons and grudges. Still, Barrow makes a good stab of interpreting his brother's writings. He includes journal entries, a few published stories, as well as his accomplished sketches, in which Jonathan's friends feature alongside an absurd menagerie.

One danger in posthumous analysis lies in the temptation to "solve" the deceased. This is particularly to be resisted, since Barrow's account of rapacious, unscrupulous therapists – each of whom bore an invariably baleful influence on the immature Jonathan – is among the most poignant material. Yet, frankly, Barrow's pell-mell approach to his recollections proves so eccentric that the smart reader will opt either to reflect on the motivations of the author or suspend all attempts at analysis, and follow the boys into Tite Street, Chelsea, for the ride.

Also to cherish is the book's anecdotal richness concerning Sixties London. The brothers befriend Quentin Crisp, then an unknown, at least in literary terms. Meanwhile, Andrew avidly pursues a new hero, author Philip O'Connor. Both the excesses and constraints of the Bohemian capital are fully present, from notorious actors' hangout the As You Like It to his own aborted career in stand-up comedy.

Among the most haunting aspects of Animal Magic is what Barrow considers his brother's prescience: in The Queue, Jonathan appeared to predict with exactness the details of his own death. In a moment of Shakespearean poignancy, we are told how the Brompton Oratory respected the extant booking – but to bury Jonathan and Anita, not to marry them.

Jonathan's sense of himself - his values, sexual inclinations and career direction – remained fluid at his death, like that of many Englishmen in their teens and twenties of his generation. His novel obsesses about homosexuality in an outre, public-school sort of way. Its author craved intimacy of some kind, self-evidently, but found accepting it a supreme challenge.

Animal Magic is a stand-alone autobiographical classic, somewhat in the manner of O'Connor's own Memoirs of a Public Baby (1958) or Nicholas Haslam's more recent Redeeming Features. It is, most of all, absolutely sui generis and utterly absorbing.