In her debut novel, Rebecca Silver Slayter employs no fewer than five unreliable narrators in the service of a bleak story of twin sisters from Nova Scotia who are separated after bearing witness to their mother’s suicide.
Following their mother’s death, Mara and Aileen’s grief-stricken father blindfolds them to prevent them from seeing the evils of the world. After years of this treatment, both girls lose their sight (Mara fully, Aileen partially). Removed from their father’s care at a young age, the sisters are raised by family members in different parts of the country – Aileen by an aunt in Halifax, Mara by a distant cousin in Alberta who ultimately sends her to a boarding school for the blind.
The sisters lose contact with one another, and only after Aileen gets out of an emotionally empty marriage does she begin a search for Mara that takes her to Dawson City, where she meets the book’s three other narrators: Angel, Minnie, and Mara’s son, Jason, a compulsive liar who suffers breaks with reality. Populated by lost and trapped souls, Slayter’s Dawson City is a remote place where the eternal summer sunshine feels like an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ emotional darkness.
Religion and myth loom large throughout the book. It becomes clear after only a few pages that Mara’s portion of the story is being told from beyond the grave, and Slayter sets up Mara’s death as a mystery Aileen must solve. Jason might hold the truth, but his is a highly stylized narration, which involves an elaborate creation myth drawing on First Nations folklore.
Slayter’s storytelling is disorienting, leaving the reader as unsettled as the characters. A stronger hand might have pulled together the book’s ending more tightly, but ultimately In the Land of Birdfishes is an original and surprising debut.