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Pickle Me This

June 1, 2017

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Has extreme weather always been a feature of literature? Certainly the flood in The Mill on the Floss wasn’t caused by climate change. But it seems particularly meaningful in a troubling fashion to be encountering so much bad weather in books lately—floods in new books by Carleigh Baker, Margaret Drabble and Leanna Betamasosake Simpson as floods have closed Toronto Island. Yesterday and the day before as the weather moved between sunshine and thunderclaps every ten minutes or so kept calling to mind Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, Little Sister, which I read last week. There is something disconcerting about the unsettled weather I keep finding in books these days, almost more so than the unsettled weather in the actual world. The way it narrows the space between truth and fiction, eerily seeming to make all things possible.

Although there is something disconcerting about the work of Barbara Gowdy in general, Gowdy who is best known for her short story collection which includes a tale of necrophilia. The idea of Barbara Gowdy’s work is more pressing in my mind than the work itself—I read her novel, Fallen Angels, years ago, and then completely forgot about having done so. The book about the elephants, which I never even read. My salient memory of We So Seldom Look on Love is a story about a child who is decapitated while being carried on an adult’s shoulders, a tragic encounter with a ceiling fan—Harriet overheard me explaining this synopsis when she was three, and then became obsessed with it, which lead to this very macabre post about gingerbread men. I wonder if the idea of reading Barbara Gowdy might be bigger than the work itself, possibly because the experience is so visceral.

There was a point in Little Sister where I became incapable of putting the book down, not because I was “gripped” necessarily (although I was enjoying the book entirely) but instead because never in my entire life had I had any less idea about where a novel was going to go. I stayed up that night reading well past midnight because I had to find out and couldn’t rest until I did. The answer is not obvious, um, obviously. This is the story of a woman who runs a repertory cinema with her mother who is suffering from dementia, and who keeps slipping in and out of another woman’s body during thunderstorms. Not occupying the other woman’s consciousness, but being privy to it, and she spots the other woman’s eyes in the mirror, eyes that seem to belong to her sister who died under circumstances the reader doesn’t learn until later.

It’s all so ordinary, that’s the thing. Plausible, even, because all the details are concrete, the geography mapping properly onto reality as I know it. (Quite literally: like much of Gowdy’s work, this is a story set in Toronto.) It reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of the Lemon Cake, which I read a few years ago. Both books with such understated sorrow, and protagonists named Rose also. Magic realism, but without the magic. Or maybe the point is that the magic is so real, of this world entirely?

I loved Little Sister. Rose becomes obsessed with locating the woman whose body she keeps possessing, craving thunder (which she has the inside track on—her boyfriend is a meteorologist). So much goes unspoken, and the whole novel is about the spaces between us, the desperation for connection, the gap between a first person narrator and third, how we see ourselves and the ways we are seen. All of it very understated, the opposite of cinematic, but it riffs on cinema too because of the setting, all things being connected, the question for reader being: how?

And here is where the magic is. And maybe also it’s the question that is the very point.

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Mitzi Bytes

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