There always seems to be a magical and unexplainable bond between people at times. Be it friends, family members or even total strangers, we seem attracted to certain people so much that we are able to sense their thoughts and emotions without even saying a word out loud. And it is that sense of connectivity with certain individuals that Barbara Gowdy has her characters explore in her book Little Sister.
Her nose bled.
She overreached the Kleenex and had to steer her hand back. An aftermath of misery clung to her, and she let herself cry a bit. She must have fallen asleep, except the precise, mundane details, not just the spider and the skirt but also her cold fingers, her childish grip on the pen, the background noises – that whole ordinary, filled-in world and its myriad sensations – had felt as real as this, only (she looked around) in much clearer focus.
Harriet? Who was Harriet? Rose had never before dreamed that she was someone else. Or inside someone else. Yes, inside more accurately described the feeling of visiting, as opposed to having, the woman’s body. She sniffed her empty coffee cup and thought of their new employee, Lloyd, the former drug dealer.
Gowdy has given us readers something profound and unique to ponder over with her protagonist Rose Bowan. Every time a thunderstorm hits, Rose loses consciousness and has visions inhabiting another woman’s body. And while inside that body, Rose witnesses actions and emotions of ‘Harriet’, a professional woman who’s life is about upended by a pregnancy due to a affair with a married co-worker. And while Rose is encased by Harriet’s life and emotions, she begins to ponder her own relationships – a boyfriend, a mother with dementia, a sister who mysterious passed away years ago. It is through Rose’s eyes and thoughts, readers are given ground to carefully consider their own relationships in their lives.
Ava’s papier-mâché parrot, Tobikumu, gazed sightlessly toward the window. He had been a Christmas present from a great-uncle who had lived for several years in Tokyo. Rose had gotten Kazuyuki, a delicate papier-mâché cellist with elongated fingers resting on fine strings that might have been dental floss. One day she had taken him to the house of a new Japanese friend, and there, within five minutes, the friend’s poodle had town him to confetti.
Under Ava’s care, Tobikumu, the parrot, stayed perfect. Under Rose’s he lost his glass eyes. She put him on her bedside table so that before falling asleep she could look at his sockets and recover the guilt she’d shed during the day, in those moments when she’d been lighthearted or animated or – the most bewildering offence – pleased with herself. She thought of the guilt as survivor’s guilt, and of survivor’s guilt as a guilt necessary for survival. Tobikumu was her victim and accuser both. She counted on him to get her to cry herself to sleep.
She cried secretly, in near silence. Still, her parents saw her misery and sent her to a child psychologist, an old woman who was half deaf and therefore needed to sit next to Rose on the sofa. Rose didn’t mind. Dr. Grewal’s baked-bread grandmotherly smell and her cracked brown face like dried mud were unthreatening and a little heartbreaking. She spoke in a soft, accented voice. She had a tendency to repeat Rose’s answers, for both their sakes, Rose understood, in order that Rose might hear them said back to her, and that Dr. Grewal might verify she’d heard them correctly. Rose never mentioned Tobikumu, and when the subject came around to Ava, she said what any normal girl getting better would say: Yes, I’m still sad. No, not as sad as I was. Yes, I understand it wasn’t my fault. Mostly the dwelt on Rose’s present circumstance, her friends and school, her shyness. To distract Dr. Grewal from asking about Ava, Rose mad her shyness sound like a more serious problem than it was. Year after year, as Dr. Grewal’s deafness worsened and she sat ever closer, Rose offed up the minor troubles and triumphs of her week.
Gowdy’s writing style has a direct feel to it. The story is not filled with excess descriptions or extra phrases. Readers are thrust into Rose’s train of thoughts or paths of actions without being given any room for second guessing or looking back. Readers are stuck following Rose’s life like poor Rose is stuck observing Harriet’s life during one of her trances.
She would never love him, but she wanted him to love her. The man you were with was supposed to love you. Besides, he had loved his wife and often told her so.
Then one morning she stopped caring whether he loved her or not. She went to sleep caring and woke up asking herself, what am I doing? Apart from the strain of listening to his countless specific and indefinite resentments, there was the fact that he preferred to see her mid-morning, during those hours when, normally, she would be having breakfast and doing household chores. But how do you break up with a lonely, recent-immigrant widower?
Barbara Gowdy has certainly given us readers some considerations in regards to our relationships as we read Little Sister. The plot is matter-of-fact and direct, and it is certainly one that is worthy of reflecting on.