Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister casts a weird spell on its protagonist – and its readers
By Barbara Gowdy
Patrick Crean Editions
312 pp; $33.99
It would take only a few minor adjustments, in tone and narrative, for Barbara Gowdyâ€™s Little Sister to qualify as a horror novel. The protagonist, Rose, 34, owner and manager of a repertory cinema (easily recognizable to Toronto film buffs as the Revue), has the preternatural ability to enter the psyche and the body of another human being, in this case a books editor named Harriet. The extent to which Harriet recognizes this event â€“ Rose calls it an â€œepisodeâ€� â€“ is unclear, and so is Roseâ€™s ability to initiate or control it. There seems to be some growth in awareness, however. It was during her fourth episode, Gowdy writes, â€œthat Rose grew aware of herself, not as a glint at the edge of Harrietâ€™s consciousness, but as a separate consciousness, a fully integrated component.â€� Rose knows only that the episodes are summoned every time she finds herself in the middle of a thunderstorm.
But Little Sister is not horror. Fiction writers who work with normal human characters perform much the same trickery in their imagined worlds â€“ sometimes even extending it to other members of the animal kingdom, such as Gowdyâ€™s elephants in her novel White Bone. To hear some writers talk, the relations between them and their characters are positively uncanny, the characters occasionally taking the author by surprise with their unexpected responses. Author and character, it seems, need only a nudge to experience their own episodes.
But Rose, in this novel, is not a novelist. Gowdy is the novelist. And she must provide a few clues as to what sheâ€™s up to. Are these episodes merely dreams? Roseâ€™s mundane boyfriend, Victor, believes they are â€“ but he would. â€œThe episodes were not some exotic form of dream life,â€� Gowdy writes. â€œThey were actually happening. Every time she thought she was entering Harriet, she really was.â€� True, it was a miracle defying flesh and blood, but as Rose tells herself, â€œThis is how a miracle feels.â€�
Is Rose a psychotic? Certainly brain chemistry may have something to do with these hallucinatory antics. At one point Rose researches something called a silent-migraine. Rose reads: â€œSome silent-migraine auras escalate and systematize to the extent that they become tantamount to unrestrained states of credible illusion or dreaming.â€�
Victor likes this hypothesis, too, which is enough to sink it in Roseâ€™s estimation.
Perhaps sex is the culprit. In Harrietâ€™s body she experiences a wonderful orgasm, a bout of â€œunearthly pleasure,â€� which might be enough to wreak havoc with her nervous system ever after. With Victor, she always faked her orgasms. â€œWas the husk of her body able to feel anything?â€� Rose wonders. Is she condemned to love only men she can feel sorry for?
Harrietâ€™s eyes may be the real clue. They are the same eyes possessed by Roseâ€™s deceased younger sister Ava when the two girls roamed their familyâ€™s country house. The novelâ€™s title proclaims the subject of the novel: the younger sibling whose death lies at the back of every emotional crisis in Roseâ€™s waking life, and indeed behind any episode. This in itself is not a great mystery â€“ almost from the very moment that the reader learns Rose had a younger sibling who suffered from a dark fate, the mystery is for all intents resolved. Anyone who has a younger sibling is liable to feel guilty, deserved or not, thereby abetting the author â€˜s economy of sympathy. The little sister in this case almost stands as a symbol of innocence and vulnerability.
Gowdyâ€™s problem is not making Rose a living, breathing, sympathetic character but rather a vivid one. The same with Harriet. What can an author do with a character that is close to being a zombie, with a will at the mercy of another person? What can an author do with a little girl who is a symbol of innocence and vulnerability? Are Harriet and Ava real people? Or can they be made to seem real? Can Harriet and Ava and Rose too, for that matter, avoid a fatal touch of masochism?
Thanks to Gowdyâ€™s imaginative intelligence, the Rose and Harriet duo is never ridiculous. What drives the novel, however, is not so much their interaction as Roseâ€™s encounters with the indisputably real individuals who populate her world â€“ the meeting of her eleven-year-old self with a girl named Shannon who channels the force of the universe and in general impresses Rose with her mystic, woodland lore is alone worth the price of admission. Rose, Gowdy writes, had â€œnever met a genius before.â€�
Equally compelling is Roseâ€™s mother, Fiona, who suffers from the onset of dementia. The boyfriend Victor, a self-centered, apprentice writer, and Lloyd, a noble-hearted ex-con, help keep the theatre alive. These are basically comic characters â€“ an inch or two away from being tragic. The theatre itself is a comic backstop that prevents Gowdyâ€™s main story from dissolving in improbability.
Of course it helps if a reader is like Lloyd, who tells Rose, â€œIâ€™m good with weird.â€� Gowdy also requires readers who are â€œgood with weird.â€� As long as she maintains her judicious mixture of warmth and weirdness, however, she should have no trouble casting her own spell on such readers.
There is, finally, a moral to the story. It is simple. Rose articulates it. â€œGet your own head straight,â€� she muses, â€œbefore hanging around someone elseâ€™s.â€�