Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister
Toronto: HarperCollins, 2017
Trade cloth, 312 pages

From bomb shelters to the minds of pachyderms, from intimate relationships to panoramic views Barbara Gowdy inhabits the Other’s consciousness to De-Other them. Her explorations are compassionate and demanding, and they require readers who are willing to venture into darkness.

In Little Sister, she presents Rose, who inexplicably inhabits another woman in what she comes to call “episodes”, which seem to be related to thunderstorms. Weather systems collide; realities collide.

Rose does wonder how and why she is inhabiting Harriet, but she has other unanswered questions too. Her little sister, Ava, died when she was 10 and Rose was 11. Rose did not witness the scene and pieced things together from overheard conversations and her parents’ explanations.

Readers understand neither the historical scene nor the present-day “episodes”, although the narrative moves between 1982 and 2005, to create a deeper understanding of the bond between the sisters and the possibility that intense grief could impact Rose’s consciousness in the present.

Readers find themselves in Rose, and Rose finds herself in Harriet. In time, Harriet is pregnant (another potential inhabitant). Barbara Gowdy orchestrates all of this, inhabiting everyone. Who is in whose skin? Where does she begin and where does she end? How can one distinguish between one woman and another? “She had that pulled-string sensation beneath her skin.”

Reality is layered in Rose’s working life as well, in her management of The Regal, which plays second-run movies and enduring classics. Just as customers line up to see a familiar film, Rose revisits her girlhood memories of Ava and lives her life in scenes.

Rose’s leading man is Victor, who works for Environment Canada. Despite his training and experience, the weather remains unpredictable, and Rose does not confide in him complete. Forecast storms do not materialize and pop-ups abound. Life is filled with uncertainty.

Victor reminds Rose that time stands still in a dream, but it stands still in waking life as well. In the trail of photographs of her father pictured with movie stars, he continues to inhabit the business, in frames on the walls and in the programming details.

Dark clouds or tinted windows? An inner voice or the voice of God? A parent’s vague recounting or a coroner’s detailed report? Insanity or telepathy? There is no word for the experience which Rose has, just as Victor observes that English has no word for the sensation of being lost in the forest.

Rose’s father was delusional while coping with end-stage cancer under the effects of morphine. Rose’s mother is experiencing dementia, careening through her everyday life like a pop-can down a slope, her Irish accent lilting her speech as her connection to reality ebbs and flows. A childhood friend talks about telepathy and spirit visions, and the woman Rose inhabits talks about darkness and suicide.

Barbara Gowdy has a reputation for taking readers into uncomfortable and unfamiliar places. Little Sister leaves readers longing for a hand to hold.

© Marcie McCauley 2017

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