Friday, 2 October 2015

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen

review by Maryom

Two middle-aged sisters live in an isolated house in the north of Norway; surrounded by open moorland, far from the nearest village, they live an almost solitary life. One,the narrator, has been handicapped almost all her life; the other, Ragna, has had to become her nurse. For years they've rubbed along together, not always amicably but reasonably so, the whole dynamic of their relationship changes when the unforeseen happens -  in her late forties, Ragna gets married. She now has someone else to care about, and her sister begins to lose the central part she'd played in Ragna's life. Ragna still has to care for her, but the main focus of her affection is her husband ....and the sisters' relationship begins to shift and warp.

I'd half-expected that the story-telling would alternate between the two sisters - giving opposing views of the situation - but it wasn't necessary. Although told throughout from the point of view of the invalid sister, my sympathies moved between the two. My automatic instinct was to side with the disabled sister, after all she's suffered many years of pain and is virtually imprisoned by her lack of mobility, but then, and even though the narrator is slanted against her, I began to empathise with the able-bodied Ragna. Since their parents died, Ragna has been sole carer for her sister, has presumably had to abandon dreams of a career or marriage to act as nurse, and is rarely appreciated for her troubles. Her sister meanwhile listens through walls, rummages through Ragna's belongings while she's out, and tries at times to be as much of a nuisance as possible! Some of her strategies would be hilarious, if the overall situation weren't so dark.

 It's not an easy 'cut and dried' book. Seeing events unfold from the perspective of only one of the 'players' is always suspect. Sometimes, cooped up in her room, the narrator invents scenarios, plays them out in her head to see what might happen - and sometimes the reader knows she's interpreted things wrongly, sometimes we can only guess.
Adding to the sisters' isolation is the landscape of northern Norway - endless expanses of moor and forest stretching to the horizon - and the extremes of weather. The ever-present sun of mid-summer contrasting with the total darkness of midwinter. Both hiding the natural division of day and night, but, whereas in winter the sisters huddle together, finding companionship in facing the elements together, in summer the constant glare is upsetting, disorienting, and works to separate the sisters,    .

 To my mind there were certain echoes of the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane - two sisters forced into living together, one dependent on the other - but there's a lot less over the top drama and thriller-style suspense about it. It's a rather sad tale in the end. The narrator just wants things to carry on as they were, two sisters alone, meaning all the world to each other, but it's not possible.

translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

 Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction

1 comment:

  1. Yes, that's what it reminded me of: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I kept thinking that it reminded me of something vaguely while reading it, but could never quite pinpoint what. Of course, much more subtle and less melodramatic, as you say.