‘Split’ by Libby Creelman

Book Reviews

Split coverReviewed by Ben Wood

Pilgrim and her sister April share everything. As identical twins, they share a physical resemblance, they share an intuitive knowledge of the other’s needs, desires and taste, and sometimes they don’t even require speaking to know the other’s thoughts. In their adolescence they share a love for the same man, a young doctor from the Bahamas, Jean. When he chooses April over Pilgrim and their relationship is revealed to a disapproving family, April and Jean run away together and the bond between the sisters is broken.

Libby Creelman’s second novel, Split, is the story of Pilgrim’s return to her rural Massachusetts town decades after cutting ties with her family and leaving for Canada. Her father has died, her mother has Alzheimer’s, and she discovers April and Jean are still together and living in the Bahamas.

The first few sections of the novel alternate between Pilgrim’s youth in the 1970s and her return home in the 2000s. During that time, we see that Pilgrim hasn’t let go of the past despite her life in another country with her husband and child. But Creelman doesn’t focus on Pilgrim’s interior struggles. Rather, she juxtaposes the larger themes of racism, urban development, and the economy of rural America from these two periods to show that time doesn’t always make things better.

For all its themes, much of the novel’s value is in its captivating look at the bond between identical twins, something that is often obscured by a dominating plot. As twins whose own father can’t always tell them apart, it is their differences that they find most frightening—the freckles that don’t match those on the other’s face or the moles on April’s arms that don’t appear on Pilgrim’s. It’s also a sign that their unique, shared identity could come undone. Maybe it is to insure against this happening that Pilgrim often extends her own actions to her sister as well—‘rubbing our heads’, ‘shaking our heads’—or why in describing her personal experiences, she attributes it to them both—‘we had a recurring nightmare’, ‘we thought of Miss Beattie and the classroom of children gaping at us’.

Because the reader is never privy to April’s verification that she did, in fact, rub her head or had the same recurring nightmare, it seems that Creelman’s use of ‘our’ or ‘we’ or ‘us’ isn’t merely descriptive but instead a deliberate effort to extend the possession of the narrative to include April in order for the reader to glimpse the twins’ shared world, where moments aren’t exclusively mine or yours, where unspoken feelings are still known, where desires aren’t unique and personal.

Later in the story Pilgrim tells her sister that as a child she tried to see the air between them. It is a comment that a preoccupied April barely acknowledges, and the reader is left to wonder whether Pilgrim was trying to verify if anything visible did in fact divide them into separate beings or if those things ‘that can’t be seen by the human eye… oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen’ are the binding agents that enabled their intimate connection as one.

When Creelman allows for these tender moments, it is always against the backdrop of distracted characters who are carrying the plot along by doing something—moving, searching, pacing, drinking, smoking— and whose actions prevent them from fully listening and reflecting, and in Pilgrim’s case, from finding some resolution.

Throughout the novel there is a fine, if at times frustrating, balancing act between action and reflection, and one that will resonate differently for each reader. On one hand, the privileging of the plot at the cost of the narrator’s interiority can lead to the conclusion that Pilgrim’s life—leaving home, moving to Canada, her marriage, her child, her career—was determined some three decades earlier by a man choosing her sister over her, and it makes many of her decisions following her return, especially her reunion with April and subsequent affair with Jean, at best difficult to believe and at worst an indication that this is standard romance fare, easily consumed and not to be questioned.

However, in the sparse moments when the plot temporarily slows down, breathes, and gives way to a vulnerable admission or sincere question we see the possibility, if only for that moment, that it was the disruption of her shared world with April that has Pilgrim spinning out of control as she tries to understand herself independently of her sister, and that her obsession with the past isn’t the result of a broken heart, but an attempt to understand the one person who was able to get in the air between them.

One of these moments involves Pilgrim’s mother, who barely figures in their childhood. She is usually at the vegetable stand down the road from their house and is often drowned out by her loud, outspoken husband. She already is to Pilgrim as a child what her Alzheimer’s causes her to become later in life—distant and removed. For a brief moment in the common room at the nursing home one day, the nurse, usually enamoured by Pilgrim, is called away, and the others are all either distracted by election coverage on television or otherwise briefly absorbed, leaving Pilgrim alone with her mother. It is then that her mother experiences a moment of recognition and addresses her daughter by name. Pilgrim is shocked by her mother’s awareness, the resilience of the bond between mother and daughter, and maybe above all by hearing her mother say her name without also uttering her sister’s. But this swell of recognition disappears as fast and unexpectedly as it came on. When Pilgrim leans in to give her mother a kiss, ‘the spell is broken’ and she pulls away from the gesture of a person who is as unfamiliar to her mother as she is to herself.

Goose Lane | 374 pages | $22.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-0864928610

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Ben Wood

Ben Wood is a writer from Winnipeg and is an associate editor for The Winnipeg Review.