Little Sister is Barbara Gowdy at her disturbing and mysterious best

Barbara Gowdy's new novel is called Little Sister. Photo: Ruth Kaplan

Little Sister
Barbara Gowdy (Patrick Crean Editions)

In town: Barbara Gowdy appears at the Ottawa International Writers Festival April 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St.

Barbara Gowdy is, once again, weird but wonderful. Her new novel, Little Sister, is a mesmerizing trip into The Twilight Zone. Mysteries abound and are not always solved. Suspension of disbelief is necessary but well worth the trip.

Think of Little Sister like an Alex Colville painting. We’re not always sure what is going on. The possibilities are disturbing. Yet, we are utterly fascinated.

The Toronto author’s fiction has always revelled in the abnormal. There was the short story about a necrophiliac in the collection, We So Seldom Look on Love. Other works include The White Bone, a tale told by elephants; The Two-Headed Man, whose title says it all; Mister Sandman, about an autistic girl who is an accomplished classical pianist. Gowdy always takes us places most of us have never visited before.

And now we have Little Sister, in which Rose, a contemporary Toronto woman with a hum-drum life and a boring boyfriend, finds herself episodically inhabiting the body of Harriet, a woman she does not know but who, from time to time, looks remarkably like Rose’s dead sister Ava. Speaking of Ava, how did she die just shy of her 10th birthday? And why does Rose feel so guilty about the death two decades later?

Is Rose simply dreaming that she is having adventures inside Harriet’s body? Can this be explained by the strange meteorological events gripping Toronto one summer? Or is something else at play?

Gowdy drops breadcrumbs throughout the plot leading to elusive destinations. Like a Colville painting, we must, ourselves, write part of the narrative. This is a book to stimulate the imagination, not answer questions. It is also a book forcing us to explore deeply that purely human phenomenon called empathy.

At first Rose is alarmed when she finds herself looking at the world through Harriet’s eyes. But then she comes to relish the episodes, especially after she experiences all the pleasure Harriet does during a steamy sexual encounter with her married lover, David. That is definitely one of the more arresting sex scenes ever crafted in Canadian literature.

Here is how Gowdy describes Rose’s experience inhabiting Harriet: “Being in that streamlined, percolating body with its loose joints and eagle vision was an indescribable thrill, beyond anything she had ever felt or imagined feeling.”

Rose becomes obsessed with Harriet and, even when not inhabiting her, tries to learn everything she can about her, even snooping in Harriet’s desk at a publishing company.

Harriet becomes pregnant and depressed. Rose is determined both Harriet and her unborn baby should remain healthy. Thus, Rose attempts to block Harriet’s suicidal thoughts.

Is Rose just being a Good Samaritan or are her motivations more complex, related somehow to Harriet looking like a grown-up Ava? Ah, those mysteries and guilt again.

Rose has complicated relations with all members of the eccentric cast of characters assembled by Gowdy, Rose never being sure exactly what or whom she wants. Readers can be forgiven for being suspicious of the actions and motives of the entire lot. There’s Rose’s mother Fiona, who is suffering from dementia; Victor, Rose’s meteorologist boyfriend; Lloyd, the charismatic ex-con handyman at the movie theatre run by Rose and her mother; Rose’s cruel childhood friends Brianna Grace and Shannon; and the neighbour man Gordon who invades Rose’s childhood dreams.

Little Sister is billed as a novel that took Gowdy 10 years to write at least in part because of a mysterious, long-running and painful back ailment that caused the author to compose much of the book from a horizontal position while under the influence of powerful pain-killers. One suspects Gowdy might have gladly traded places with Rose and left her own body behind for awhile to experience life through a pain-free person.

Gowdy joked, in advance of her scheduled April 28 appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, that her hosts could throw some cushions on the floor rather than require her to sit or stand for long periods of time. She will be sharing a stage with Claire Cameron, author of the newly released The Last Neanderthal. Cameron writes in the acknowledgements at the back of her book that part of her inspiration to tell the story from the viewpoint of a Neanderthal woman was Gowdy’s The White Bone.

So, will Gowdy be seated, standing or reclining? Whatever her choice, chances are she will deliver the unexpected. She usually does.



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