What happens when sibling rivalry is based on the colour of one’s skin? This is the premise of Surrey, B.C., author Taslim Burkowicz’s second novel, a story of two sisters, Gia and Serena Pirji, whose first names disguise their South Asian ancestry and the shadeism that comes between the two.
The Desirable Sister begins with a lengthy prologue, which introduces the long shadow of fate within the Pirji family. Twenty-five-year-old Kasim, a recent refugee to Canada from Idi Amin’s South Asian purge in Uganda, is ready to settle down in a way that would please his Gujarati mother. She sets up a meeting with the beautiful and fair-skinned Gulshan, who appears to be the perfect bride – that is, until he meets her younger, more boisterous, and darker-skinned sister, Zeenat. His impetuous proposal to the latter upends the natural order between the two sisters.
Together Kasim and Zeenat start a new life away from the demands of his family, raising two daughters who are as unlike each other as Gulshan and Zeenat. Gia is the daughter who parties and can pass as white; Serena is studious and easily identified as Indian. This difference gnaws away at Serena as she experiences a continuous assault of micro-aggressions about her looks. She develops a seething resentment against her older sister, while Gia remains oblivious to the effects of how they are differently perceived.
The story alternates between Serena’s and Gia’s points of view as they come of age and take separate paths into adulthood. Each tries to come to terms with their ancestry differently: Gia becoming an artist working with Indian textiles, and Serena marrying a man she met in the Indian association at university. They both experience heartbreak, betrayals, and abuse but find it almost impossible to connect with each other in times of need until it is almost too late.
Burkowicz crams a lot of social issues into her pages, touching on Vancouver’s drug scene, gentrification, racism, and more. But in the end, The Desirable Sister feels a little rushed as the siblings’ lives hurtle to an unforeseen conclusion.