The Story of Tom Brennan is, at its heart, a study of family dynamics in times of crisis. When seventeen-year-old Tom's older brother Daniel chooses to drive drunk and gets in a car accident, killing two classmates and permanently paralyzing his cousin Fin, the Brennans struggle to deal with the fallout both within their hometown of Mumbilli and within the family itself. As time passes and the Brennans begin to put their lives back together, the novel pays particular attention to the ways in which various family members experience betrayal and look to unexpected sources for help. In this way, The Story of Tom Brennan presents a portrait of family life that insists that even though members cannot always be relied on to act in conventional ways, there's always room for individuals to do better—and there are always other family members to call on.
Prior to the start of the novel, Tom's nuclear family had been close-knit and very involved in life in Mumbilli: Dad was one of the rugby coaches and Mum worked in the school cafeteria, while they both hosted lunches and get-togethers on weekend and holidays. On the other hand, the nuclear family's relationships with extended family members was, in some cases, contentious: Tom, Daniel, and their younger sister Kylie had an uncomfortable and awkward relationship with Gran in particular, who lives six hours away in Coghill.
Following the accident, however, all of these relationships begin to break down and the entire family finds itself ostracized by Mumbilli. Mum takes to her bed, overcome with grief, and except for Daniel, who is in jail, the nuclear Brennan family moves in with Gran and Mum's younger brother, Brendan, in Coghill. The Brennans must, in turn, renegotiate and reimagine their relationships with each other, given how much their circumstances change in the months after the accident. Mum, for instance, has to deal with the pain of seeing her sister, Aunty Kath—that is, Fin's mother. This means that the two women must learn to relate to each other with the painful knowledge that Mum's son changed Fin and Kath's lives forever.
For Tom, one of the worst parts of the accident's aftermath is Mum's dive into a depressive episode. He notes a number of times when she's in this state that she neglects her personal hygiene to the point where she's nearly unrecognizable as his mother. Staying in bed all the time also means that she's not available to care for Tom or express interest in his life as one might typically expect from a maternal figure. Though Tom makes it clear that Mum and Daniel were especially close, the sense of betrayal he feels when Mum effectively disappears from his own life indicates that he relied on his mother more than he may have thought—though it also makes Tom realize that if he wants the kind of support he used to get from Mum, he'll now have to look for it elsewhere. During the time that Mum is ill, Brendan takes Tom under his wing and helps him do the work of grieving and starting to move on with his life. Because of the relationship that Tom and Brendan form, Tom begins to understand that he truly does have many more people around to care for him than he originally thought.
Tom's realization that he has a much larger familial support network than he realized eventually comes to encompass his relationship with Gran as well. When Tom's family first moves in with her, he and Kylie refer to her in private as "The Grandmother" and make fun of her house, which is dark, has a funny name, and is decorated only with paintings of patron saints. Tom also struggles to see her as a helpful and important figure in his life because of her inability to cook unappetizing meals and her insistence that Tom say grace and include prayers for Daniel when he does so, something that Tom finds wildly inappropriate at first.
Yet as Tom adjusts to life in Coghill, he's eventually able to see that what he initially read as tone-deaf eccentricities are actually Gran's ways of trying to help. For example, when Mum first begins getting out of bed, Gran tapes a picture of Saint Vitus, the patron saint of oversleeping, to the fridge in the hope that the saint may be able to keep Mum "vertical for longer periods." During this same conversation, Gran tells Tom that she'd like him to tell her if he doesn't like a certain dish so that she can better feed him. The combination of Tom recognizing Gran's attempts to help for what they are (and even finding them privately funny), and Gran recognizing that some things will need to change to accommodate her grandson show that the Brennan family is beginning to break free of the roles they occupied in years past and figure out what their relationships look like going forward. Most importantly, however, both Tom and Gran realize in this situation that the other is their own person.
This realization that the various Brennan family members are individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires—not just an uncle, or a grandmother, or a son playing a prescribed role—is what finally allows the Brennans to begin the healing process and move forward in their new lives. Tom takes the final step towards recognizing the individuality of his family members when he asks Brendan to help him build a chicken coop for Gran for her birthday, as he remembers how much she loved the chickens she had years ago and wants her to have that happiness again. In this way, the novel illustrates ultimately that it's possible to find the find of familial support that Tom craves from more than just the usual suspects—and that being able to lean on more family members grants Tom a richer support network than he ever thought possible.
Family Quotes in The Story of Tom Brennan
I wandered down the hall in case Mum was awake. The door to her room was open. I stood there. Maybe Dad was telling the truth, maybe she had just gone to bed and was waiting to hear how my first day went. I stepped into the doorway. A thickness in the air hung still and stale.
She didn't see me. How could she under all those covers?
"Yeah, thanks Mum," I whispered. "School went okay."
Suddenly I was sucked deeper into that long black tunnel, the memories of Fin and Daniel and how we once were, and the worst thing, the knowing. Knowing more than anything I'd ever know that things would never be the same.
Somewhere in the bush, hard to say how far away, I could hear the painful sound of groaning, retching sobs. It was Daniel but I couldn't go to him. Part of me wanted to, the other part didn't. I knew I had to stay with Fin, stay with the mess Daniel had made. Yet a voice inside of me was screaming, "He's alive, he's alive. Daniel's alive."
Brendan didn't want to say how bad Fin really was because it'd upset Dad and it wasn't his fault. But then Dad couldn't tell Brendan, or probably anyone for that matter, what state Daniel was in because the general consensus was that Daniel deserved what he got.
There were so many times when I just couldn't believe this'd happened, happened to me, to my family. This sort of thing happened to other people, not the Brennans.
"It gets him out of the mainstream for a while, gives him a bit of breathing space," explained Brendan. "He finds the visiting hard. I mean, it's his lifeline, but the guilt resurfaces every time. That's what strangles him."
Once, probably not that long ago, I'm not sure I could've gone back at all. But here I was sliding the drawer open.
"The best thing about playing in the firsts at St. John's was playing with you, Dan." As I said it I realized that towards the end it had become the worst thing too—trying to carry him as his game slipped and he stopped caring about us, the Brennan brothers.
"They couldn't control Dan. They were scared of him. Well, scared of the consequences if they tried to pull him into line [...] Maybe Daniel was always going to do something like this. Maybe he had to fall this far."
Before, Brendan had been someone who was just always around. Someone I never really thought about. Mum's little brother. My uncle, that was about as far as it went. But that's when life was simpler.
Now Brendan wanted me to see him. See who he really was. This was probably the way Daniel saw him and now I did too.
We were. The three of us, like brothers.
Now it was hard to believe that. Blood's thicker than water, so what's the difference between your brother and your cousin? I didn't know. I'd never know.