The greatest tragedy of Little Sister isn’t the unfortunate circumstances of a character’s death, the strange way the protagonist Rose Bowan finds herself living the life of Harriet Smith, a big-time book editor across town, the failing memory of Rose’s dementia-ridden mother, Fiona, or even the unsatisfying sex of her mundane relationship with her meteorologist and lazy-eyed boyfriend, Victor. No, the greatest tragedy of Barbara Gowdy’s bizarre and exciting novel is the god-awful design on its cover.
Normally, I say you can totally judge a book by its cover, but please, not this one. This one is so much deeper, more intriguing, and well-written than the creepy, badly photoshopped cover would have you believe.
Little Sister is something that not a lot of Canadian fiction aspires to be: it’s weird. And I love weird.
“She saw a cloudbank tracking north. It might miss this part of town. Or it might not, and she would have an episode […] She pictured her body drooped in a chair while, in Harriet’s body, the commotion of people trying to revive her was audible.”
—Barbara Gowdy, Little Sister
In the summer of 2005, Rose Bowan, who runs a fancy old theatre in Toronto with her mother and an ex-con handyman named Lloyd, blinks herself into the clear-visioned and exciting life of Harriet Smith, who works for a publishing company somewhere downtown, and who’s got herself tangled up with a married man who makes Rose swoon on sight.
Rose starts keeping track of her “episodes,” calling up her boyfriend, Victor, for frequent weather reports on the storm system that’s moving through their part of the world for, Rose has figured out, the episodes only occur during storms. Victor is convinced she’s having migraines. Rose develops a taste for Harriet’s life, going as far as chasing down these storms so that she can find out what happens next. Her behaviour is not unlike her patrons sitting through back-to-back films with a single image in common, as curated by Rose’s late father. The image that holds all of Rose’s supernatural experiences together is the picture of her little sister’s eyes. When Harriet looks into a mirror, Rose swears she has Ava’s eyes.
To explain Rose’s obsession with this mysterious and vicarious Harriet Smith, Gowdy turns back time to one summer in the 1980s when Rose and Ava were girls on their family’s newly-purchased farmhouse, when Rose first learns to live through another far-away person, this time an Oneida girl, and the circumstances which explain Rose’s ever-present guilt and desire to see her little sister just one more time.
There’s a lot of discussion around Gowdy’s deft hand and light touch. And for good reason. Though the book is weird, with a number of instances of the way reality can bend around a broken mind, Gowdy manages to keep everything in line in a way that makes sense, even if never fully explained. Let’s face it: if she were to explain the magic and the mystery completely, the book wouldn’t be half as much fun as it is.
Gowdy creates a realistic novel about weird things happening. It stands out as a unique work in a Canadian cannon of ultra-realism.