Jennifer Quist won the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award for her first novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death. Her follow-up, Sistering, explores the complex relationships of five sisters who are as dissimilar as they are co-dependent. Each of the women comes with her own husband, children, career, and detailed backstory. The large cast presents Quist with a substantial challenge: she must make each of those characters distinct, memorable, and enticing enough that the reader will be able to keep them all straight. At this, she succeeds.
Sistering does not have one main character through whose perspective the events of the novel are filtered. Rather, the narration alternates, with each sister taking her turn at telling the story from her point of view. Quist does a commendable job giving each woman a unique voice to go with her equally unique story.
Quist writes from a place of knowledge about sibling relationships. Not only does she come from a family of five sisters, she is also mother to five sons. She draws on this first-hand experience to represent family life in all its messy complexity. In doing so, she dismantles many of the myths of sisterhood. The characters in the book do not, for example, tell each other everything, even though the proximity in which they live ensures that, in the course of the narrative, “everything” will eventually be revealed: “The truth is I want my sisters’ official messages – their pretty fictions that don’t make any sense – to be their real stories. But nothing will stop them from revealing the tumult of their nonfiction to me.”
The novel’s messiest “nonfiction” comes when one sister attempts to cover up the death of her mother-in-law, eventually involving the others in the struggle to dispose of the body. The sisters’ occupations (mortician, nurse, tombstone builder) prepare them well for this task, and the slapstick comedy that ensues puts Sistering in a category with the best work of Terry Fallis.
With its sprawling cast, tendency toward melodrama, and character-driven narrative, Sistering is a Canadian Tales of the City focusing on straight people in Edmonton. Like Armistead Maupin, Quist draws on narrative strategies associated with soap opera: there are mistaken identities, false mothers, elaborate lies, unexpected allegiances. People who are supposed to be dead come back to life. People who are supposed to be alive turn out to be dead. After a day of revelations that lead to over-the-top drama, the youngest sister thinks, “It’s possible that I will never be shocked again.”
Quist pushes the line between normalcy and absurdity, drawing on the latter to create humour, but also at times asking too much of readers in terms of suspension of disbelief. “What matters isn’t always whether stories are true,” the last chapter tells readers, “but whether they could be true.”
Sistering’s story could not be true – at least not in its entirety. Part of the novel’s fun is its far-fetched nature. Quist has created a rollicking page-turner, a tall tale full of black humour and extreme human drama that will make for excellent escapist reading.