Title: Little Sister
Plot Type: Supernatural domestic thriller
Ratings: Violence—2; Sensuality—2; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: Tin House Books
"ELECTRIFYING...Gowdy sucks readers into this suspenseful, supernatural story like a strong wind in a squall." (Kirkus Review)
Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman's body.
Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.
In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.
Thirty-four-year-old Rose lives in Toronto with her mother, Fiona, who is slipping away into dementia. They own a magnificent, historic movie theater that has been the center of their lives for many decades. Currently, the theater shows classic films every evening, with Rose managing the film bookings and the tickets, Fiona handling the concession stand, and handyman (and former drug dealer) Lloyd running the projector. Rose's father died several years ago from cancer, and her younger sister, Ava, died 23 years ago when she was just a child—a death the haunts Rose to this day with feelings of guilt and loss.
illustration for the
NY Times review of
Little Sister (6/30/17)
At first, Rose tries to approach her experience logically. Did Lloyd slip her an amphetamine? Did she have a "silent migraine" triggered by too much caffeine or by a drop in barometric pressure (her meteorologist boyfriend's favorite theory)? Is it narcolepsy? A lucid dream? Is Harriet a character in a dream, or is she real?
As thunderstorms continue to sweep through Toronto, Rose's weird out-of-body experiences—which she now calls "episodes"—continue. Soon, Rose is obsessed with trying to find Harriet, her married lover, and Marsh, another man who appears in one of the episodes. If they actually exist, then this can't be just a simple dream. But, what else could it be? Rose gets busy on her computer and—to her astonishment—learns that everyone in her episodes is a real person, so she sets out to see them in their real lives. Soon, she becomes obsessed with Harriet and her life and even begins to try out some of Harriet's habits (e.g., smoking, eating Smarties candy, doing yoga). Within days, Rose becomes addicted to her out-of-body experiences, and her emotional connection with Harriet strengthens even more when Harriet begins making some decisions about her pregnancy. And one more thing...Harriet's eyes are exactly the same shape and the same shade of green as those of Rose's dead sister. Pretty, petite, vulnerable Harriet reminds Rose of tiny, pale, sensitive Ava, who was the total opposite of tall, dark, zaftig Rose.
Meanwhile, between storms, Rose deals with the everyday details of running the theater and dealing with her mother's failing mind. The two have a comfortable, if prickly, relationship, but Fiona's most obnoxious quirks are getting stronger as her inhibitions fade. Gowdy presents Fiona in a sympathetic light, but sometimes when she does something really outrageous, even Rose has to smile (or, alternately, lose her patience). Ruefully, Rose contrasts her mother's life with her own: "Memory by memory Fiona was losing herself, while she, in the most concrete way possible, was finding another self."
The bulk of the story is set in the summer of 2005, but Gowdy includes several flashbacks to the spring and summer of 1982 in order to provide back-story on the Bowan family, particularly the relationship between Rose and Ave and the tragic circumstances of Ava's death. Halfway through the book, Gowdy interrupts the action to take us through Rose's love life from her first awkward high school sexual experience all the way up to Victor, the nerdy weatherman. Gowdy uses this chapter to provide deep insight into Rose's reasons for her romantic choices—reasons that reach back to her childhood and to that awful summer of 1982.
Rose's intimate participation in Harriet's agonizing struggles with her impossible situation forces her to reevaluate her own life. As Rose (who is barren) finds herself completely focused on Harriet and her pregnancy, she is forced to deal with her own feelings, and when the storms finally fade away for good, the clouds of guilt and loss and inadequacy surrounding Rose's life begin to disperse.
Gowdy masterfully pulls us directly into Rose's story. We are right there with her as she desperately tries to mentally communicate with Harriet—to dissuade her from taking some horrific actions. We feel her initial confusion and then understand why she soon yearns for the sound of thunder so that she can once more inhabit Harriet's mind and body. I was immediately pulled into the story both by Rose's strange body-traveling experiences and by Gowdy's elegant writing.
Gowdy is one of Canada's foremost fiction writers. This novel comes after her ten-year absence from the publishing world, and it is a welcome addition to this summer's fiction scene. As Zoe Whittall says in The Literary Review of Canada (April 2017), Gowdy is "[one] of Canada’s most innovative writers. She offers us something startling and original.A suspenseful, cinematic romp through a series of external and internal storms, a sometimes sexy comedy, a graceful story of a woman trying to make sense of her life choices. Well worth the wait."
Click HERE and click on the cover art to read an excerpt from Little Sister on it's Amazon.com page.