Little Sister, renowned Canadian author Barbara Gowdy’s newest novel, introduces itself more effectively than I can:
Rose Bowan, sitting in the office of the Regal Repertory Theatre, watched a rainstorm from her window and felt “a quick, exquisite sensation of her skin tightening and cooling.” Hearing the phone ring, she snatched it up. “‘Harriet here,’ she said in a croaky, tentative voice that was not Rose’s but somehow exactly hers. And the name wasn’t hers, of course, but it suited the small, kinetic person she seemed to be inside.”Rose is both Harriet and not-Harriet, both herself and outside-of-herself. This uncanny tension crackles through the entire novel. It penetrates Rose’s everyday life running the movie theatre, caring for her mother and going on carefully scheduled dates with her boyfriend. As thunderstorms erupt over the city of Toronto, Rose is snapped into Harriet’s body for brief, involuntary episodes. She experiences not only the physical circumstances of Harriet’s affair with a married co-worker and the ensuing pregnancy, but also all the emotional turns of an inner psyche in turmoil.
As Rose tries and fails to understand the source of the episodes (Is it a drug-spiked coffee? Is it narcolepsy?), she finds herself increasingly invested and hungry to know more about Harriet—who looks inexplicably similar to Ava, Rose’s little sister who died as a young girl.
For those who haven’t read Gowdy before, the quick, electric pleasure of her dialogue and descriptions will jump-start a fascination with these characters’ lives. And those who are familiar with her writing will recognize the web-like quality of her precisely drawn and unsettling sentences, as well as the darkness that is conjured within love-obsessed people. Gowdy propels us into a rich story with an addicting momentum: as Rose becomes embroiled in a life that isn’t her own, flashbacks reveal the tragedy that marred her childhood.
Ava, the anxious, delicately built sister with whom Rose spends all her time with as a child, lives at the heart of the book. Though her place in Rose’s subconscious is left blurry with the stains of grief and guilt, she seems to be both the object and catalyst of the storm-triggered episodes. When they move to a countryside farm as little girls, Ava is the one to become enamoured with Gordon, the roofing-equipment salesman who uses their loft for storage and helps out around the property. This happens in spite of Rose, who, upon learning that he always wears a hard hat, tells her stories of him as “an ogre with no skull above his eyebrows, nothing to cover his brains.” Her narrative compulsions find an eerie sticking point in reality as we find out that he actually wears a hard hat to cover the “purple, scooped out place” from which he had a tumour removed.
This capacity for fantasy is the same one that Rose indulges when she befriends Shannon, Gordon’s daughter. They lay out in the forest having “spirit visions” of “Oneida sisters on a hunting trip,” negotiating power the way only children can. Ultimately, Rose’s storytelling finds a very high-stakes outlet—she comes to believe that Gordon is getting too close to her baby sister, and makes a choice that leads to unimaginable consequences for both families.
In a world where everything seems like an accident, nothing is accidental. It is a testament to Gowdy’s deft hand and dedication to nuance that these events occur with double-meanings without too pointedly resembling fate or destiny. The novel’s strength lies in the way the air of coincidence allows characters to gain depth in proximity to each other. For example, the same way she once suspected Gordon of touching Ava, Rose later suspects Lloyd, the man hired as a custodian for the theatre, of stealing from the family’s safe. Rose’s infertility stands in an inverted mirror image to Harriet’s unexpected pregnancy. And then there’s Fiona, Rose’s mother, whose dementia causes delusions and memory loss at the same time that Rose is also experiencing multiple realities through her episodes.
At its core, Little Sister powerfully gestures toward the moral problems with which writing and storytelling are always faced. Rose’s inner life is made complex by her writerly propensity for creating fictions as a way of investigating reality. “Was faking your orgasm an act of generosity or of selfishness?” she wonders. “Was frigidity a source of power for her or a shrine to her everlasting guilt?” Rose’s ability to make stories matter contributes to both the terrible and the wonderful parts of her life. If, as a child, it means drawing accusatory boundaries of “good” and “bad” around certain people, it also means a new dawn of empathetic, compassionate love in her adult life. Is it reductive to say that traumatic experiences can provide humans with the potential to become better people? Maybe. But it’s somewhat true, in this novel, that they make Rose more willing to learn how rich any given stranger’s life might be, and how crucial it is to make room in the story for that difference.
Patrick Crean Editions | 312 pages | $33.99 | cloth | ISBN# 978-1554688609