Each year, Peirene Press take their readers on a series of adventures, three trips to various corners of Europe, and 2015 has been no exception. After White Hunger took us on an arduous (and rather chilly) trek through Finland to start the year, we went off to France for a far more relaxing stay, thanks to our Reader for Hire. Now, as the year draws to a close, we’re heading north once more – our destination is Norway, and our story this time is a family affair…
Gøhril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters (translated by John Irons, review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in the far north of the country, focusing on two middle-aged women – the narrator, and her five-years-older sister, Ragna. The narrator is crippled, barely able to move about by herself, and after the early death of her parents, the sister (however unwillingly) has taken on the role of a full-time carer. This comfortable status quo continues for decades until the arrival of a new neighbour, the gruff, rotund Johan, changes matters entirely.
Even though Ragna’s in her fifties, she senses that this is a chance to experience love and life, if only her little sister weren’t in the way. Suddenly, the narrator is merely an impediment to Ragna’s happiness, and fears being sent away – or worse. Of course, our sympathy (initially, at least) is with the invalid; however, the more we see of their relationship, the more we suspect that both sisters are prone to abusing the other…
While The Looking-Glass Sisters is a little longer than most Peirene titles, it has all the hallmarks of the press’ stable of works. It’s a simple tale with a clear, narrow focus, the complexity lying in the interaction between the characters, with many similarities to Peirene’s previous Norwegian novel, The Blue Room. Again, we have a story of family members with an unhealthy relationship, even if this one becomes even more claustrophobic.
The novel starts with the narrator cooped up in an attic room, before moving back a year to tell us how she got there. With the arrival of Johan, her predictable life with Ragna changes:
“Days and weeks go by. I glide into a soothing rhythm of calm everydayness. It is an illusion. I know that, for beneath the dependable surface conspiracies smoulder, along with my sister’s hot-tempered desire for her own life.
If I am to retain the right to live in this place, I must hone such skills as vigilance and suspicion, and so as to mark this decision, I write these skills on the palm of my hand in capital letters.”
p.45 (Peirene Press, 2015)
The change in circumstances brings about a realisation that she needs to be more subservient if she is to help the others want to let her stay. Of course, whether she means it or not is another story.
The Looking-Glass Sisters can be read as a story of a woman mistreated, a sister reduced to the status of a child, a supplicant begging for food, water and assistance. Each time she asks Ragna for help, her dignity is stripped away, leaving her humbled. Forced to spend her days in a routine enforced upon her, the bed-ridden woman dreams of being able to do what she wants, when she wants, longing to read and write at her leisure – if only she could get hold of books and paper. It’s hard not to feel sympathy with her plight when we see Ragna playing with her, rushing to beat her to the toilet after the poor woman’s long, tiring journey on her crutches…
The beauty of the book, though, is that we’re never entirely convinced it isn’t the other way round. The more we learn, the more we see the narrator waging psychological warfare on the other characters. While her body is weak, her mind is nimble, and one of her main occupations is playing on the others’ emotions, affecting Ragna more than she realised:
“Furthermore, can it be that I, after years of exaggerated care needs, have robbed her of the ability to think, to create a living, inner life? Can it be that I, the crippled one, have created a cripple – a mute, empty being?” (p.89)
It’s certainly possible. With her clandestine searches when the others are out, her fits of rage and, above all, the Chinese water torture of the tap, tap, tap of her crutches, the invalid knows just how to push people’s buttons.
Our unnamed friend is the very archetype of the unreliable narrator, helping construct the rather claustrophobic nature of the book. Trapped inside the house with the invalid, we experience her frustration, hearing the noises from downstairs, sharing her fears of an impending move to the old-people’s home. This makes it even more difficult for us to balance her tales of woe (and there is certainly a lot of mistreatment…) with her actions, and weigh up whether to believe her or not.
The Looking-Glass Sisters is slow to start, the first third setting up the story, but it gradually becomes more compelling. The outsider Johan is a physical presence, but in truth a mere complication or catalyst – the real story is that of the sisters’ lifelong conflict coming to a head:
“I bang my head against the wall, confirm to myself that there can’t possibly be anything else but a hard, empty shell; I can’t think of anything apart from my relationship with Ragna. It’s always Ragna, little Ragna, big Ragna, difficult Ragna. And I know it makes me afraid, this recognition of the fact that I live through Ragna, so I have to pinch my flesh, bore my fingers into my chest, feel the thin blood vessels burst, see the juice ooze out into the skin, become blue, almost black stains.” (p.86)
A rather twisted symbiosis, then, but par for the Peirene course 😉
Gabrielsens’ novel makes for a rather dark finish to our European tour, but it’s only to be expected. If you’ve read other Peirene books (e.g. Beside the Sea, The Dead Lake), you’ll know that happy endings are not their forte. Despite that, their books always make for an interesting journey, so I’d certainly recommend hopping on board. There’ll be another three legs to next year’s trip, and (of course) you can always go back and try the previous ones. Unlike real journeys, literary travel can be taken at your leisure – provided you’re not confined to *your* room…