A darkening sky, the clap of thunder, and Rose Bowan is no longer herself. Her consciousness leaves her body behind and lands inside another woman, Harriet Smith. Rose sees what Harriet sees, breathes in her cigarette smoke, feels the unwanted baby growing in her womb. In her eighth work of fiction, celebrated Canadian novelist and Guggenheim fellow Barbara Gowdy succeeds in refining her ongoing project of complicating the family dynamic and nimbly blending the starkly realist with the extrasensory and surreal.
One week’s worth of sustained thunderstorms provides ample opportunity for Rose to revisit the emotionally turbulent world of Harriet, a fiction editor wrestling with suicidal urges and navigating a secret affair with a married colleague. As Rose struggles to discern what is happening to her in these storm-triggered episodes – Are these encounters real? Silent migraines? Lucid dreams? – her perspective also becomes a window onto Harriet’s parallel narrative.
It becomes clear that Harriet is a real person, living in the same time and place as Rose – Toronto in the mid-aughts. Before she starts to inhabit Harriet, Rose’s life is staid and unsatisfying; she runs a repertory cinema inherited from her father, and fakes orgasms with her short, tedious meteorologist boyfriend, Victor. After her first experience inhabiting Harriet’s body, Rose becomes obsessed with the other woman; she takes up smoking to emulate her and becomes an ad-hoc storm chaser in the hopes of eliciting further out-of-body experiences.
Meanwhile, Fiona, Rose’s mother, is in the early stages of dementia; her lapses include slipping into an Irish brogue she’d lost decades ago and showing up for work at the theatre’s concession stand not wearing any clothing. In moments when Fiona’s mind is muddled in past memories, she has taken to referencing someone she and Rose normally never discuss: Rose’s dead little sister, Ava. To Rose, Harriet bears a striking resemblance to the younger sibling whose death Rose has always blamed on herself.
Readers familiar with Gowdy’s previous work know not to expect something “normal” – her wide-ranging novels and short stories have delved into the psyches of, among others, a would-be child molester, a group of African elephants, and a woman who makes love to corpses. In Little Sister, highly readable prose, an intriguing premise, and vivid storytelling allow the reader to set aside disbelief almost immediately. And like Paul Quarrington’s Galveston, Gowdy’s novel uses weather in new and powerful ways, elevating it from a tired CanLit cliché to an integral and electrifying element of atmosphere and plot.
As in her masterful 1995 novel, Mister Sandman, Gowdy explores the murky familial dynamics between parents and children, in this case by alternating the plotline in the narrative present with one that takes place 20 years earlier. The plot strand set in the past explores the months leading up to Ava’s death, and Rose’s complicity in the tragic event. Will Rose’s compulsion to urge pregnant Harriet to stay alive and bear her child allow Rose to purge her guilt? The answer, which is saved for Little Sister’s final page, occurs in a passage that is subtle and deft, and just as moving as it is poetic.