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Review: Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy is intelligent and enthralling

Barbara Gowdy’s first novel in 10 years reveals the author has not lost her sense of empathy and her keen eye for minutia of everyday experience.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Title
Little Sister
Author
Barbara Gowdy
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
HarperCollins
Pages
301
Price
$33.99

Rose manages a Toronto repertory cinema, a place where people come to lose themselves in the lives of strangers. As Little Sister opens, it is the summer of 2005 and the city is subject to a five-day barrage of sudden electrical storms riding in on 60 kilometre an hour winds and "stately, processional thunder." For the fleeting duration of these storms, Rose is drawn into a sort of spell: In a flash, she exits her body and enters that of a stranger, an editor named Harriet who is embroiled in a fraught love affair with a married man. Rose, too, experiences something like falling in love: She begins to carefully track weather reports, rearranging her routines to make herself ready for the next two or three minutes of transmigration, longing for her next opportunity to be inside Harriet, to inhabit her story, touch her life.

Rose's spells unlock the promise of what we refer to in stories as identification: You can escape your confines and become someone else, and, by doing so, you may also be able to repair that which is broken in your own life.

The beloved and highly decorated author of, among other works, the novels The White Bone, The Romantic and Helpless, and the story collection We So Seldom Look On Love, Barbara Gowdy has not published anything new in 10 years. I can assure you that her oft-noted gift for empathy has only burgeoned in the interim. Gowdy's return in no way announces itself as a magnum opus, which makes it that much more beguiling. This novel about stormy weather and emotional tempests, with its plot driven by its heroine's amateur sleuthing and newly discovered onism, is a surprisingly breezy read. It is fun and funny and can frequently startle you, breaking your heart with the lovingly observed minutia of everyday experience. Its confluence of the uncanny and the ordinary, of mischief and profundity, at times recalls the books of Haruki Murakami or the films of Woody Allen, but Gowdy's use of quirk as an entrée into psychological depth is most closely akin to the stories of Lorrie Moore. Little Sister is all depth and grace and yet never more than a sentence away from a playful nudge in the ribs.

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In the hands of a less discerning writer, Little Sister's quirkiness could easily exceed saturation point. Rose's mother and co-worker is afflicted with vascular dementia yet remains remarkably chipper, flirting with the cinema's hippie ex-con handyman, imagining that she's on a cruise ship or tending the concession counter sans pants. Rose's boyfriend is a frustrated middle-aged meteorologist, would-be writer, celebrity-trivia savant and Paul Simon lookalike. Rose has an octogenarian neighbour who wears a three-piece suit even during heat waves and was once a government chauffeur in Kenya. There is some light social satire in Rose's visit to a yoga studio or her encounters with prickly publishing industry office culture. There are sundry oddball stray observations, such as the sighting of a BMW apparently piloted by a nun. In the sections of Little Sister chronicling a pivotal period in Rose's childhood, we are introduced to a happy guy who constantly wears a hardhat so as to disguise a massive hole in his head, the result of a brain tumour removal.

Each of these elements is marked by genuine inquisitiveness and imbued with a greater sense of what constitutes life in a modern, multicultural city, traffic jams and casual racism included. And as we grow accustomed to Rose's climate-triggered lapses into being Harriet, Gowdy discreetly populates Little Sister with parallel, more familiar forms of strange or overtly subjective perception: We are reminded that to view the world through the hallucinatory lens of a degenerative disease or the demonstrative fixations of a possibly autistic child genius may not be so different from Rose's ostensibly supernatural fugues. Yet Gowdy is equally solicitous to the necessity of grounding psychic states in physical details: "the pulled-thread sensation beneath her skin," whenever Rose feels a spell coming on; the way excising an intimate from your life can feel like "having a piano lifted off [your] chest"; or the way the vagaries of age can leave someone with "a face as indiscriminately lined as a bread board."

I have avoided disclosing much of Harriet's personal drama or the ways that this drama ensnares Rose's attentions; Gowdy does an elegant job of pacing and honing these revelations, so best to leave that to her. I should only note that these women's stories pivot on the mysteries of manifestation, the ways that a life either appears out of seeming nothingness or can be abruptly expelled from this world. I began this review by aligning Rose's spells with the spell of cinema (and the phantasmagorical immersion of Rose's spells certainly echoes that nascent cousin to cinema: virtual reality). But if we set aside its cinematic involuntary sensorial override, Rose's inhabitations of Harriet, her arresting sense of connection and urge to understand and even give care, ultimately mirror nothing so much as the consolations of literature – exactly the sort of intelligent, enthralled, playful and empathetic literature that Gowdy has been delivering for the last three decades.

José Teodoro is a critic and playwright.

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