Andrea Gunraj’s much-awaited sophomore novel is a haunting, consistently entrancing read. It tells the tale of two pairs of sisters: Alisha and Diana, growing up in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, and Paula and Ave, growing up in Nova Scotia in the 1940s.
An ambitious and driven teenager, Diana drags her little sister Alisha to a job fair from which the former never returns. Paula and Ave, meanwhile, are snatched from their mother’s care and placed in the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. Paula attempts to protect and nurture her younger sister, but they are eventually separated. After relocating to Toronto, Paula volunteers at a library, where she meets and befriends Alisha, the two bonding over their similar pasts and the absences that loom large in their respective lives.
Gunraj focuses her narrative on the aftermath of separation: the silence between rooms, the rift between families, community bonds broken and upheld. She piercingly examines the way loss shapes and shifts the identities of those left behind, how ritual replaces hope and ambition replaces joy. The author elevates small moments, drawing from deep wells of pain triggered by mundane objects such as a bracelet. The narrative’s pulse is the friendship between Alisha and Paula, each of them finding purpose in supporting the other through a sisterhood founded on mutual suffering and loss. The reader is invited to live in Alisha’s and Paula’s inner worlds, to walk with them in their powerlessness and guilt.
Perhaps what is most impressive about The Lost Sister is Gunraj’s mastery of the human condition and its complexities. This is borne out in the narrative through a combination of jealousy, admiration, and antagonism. Gunraj is skilled in her ability to illuminate the unsaid, the unspoken, the unseen, and the unresolved; the truth of her story is not lessened by a lack of reunification at the close.
Gunraj writes with poetic precision and a nostalgia that is so familiar it reads like non-fiction. The Lost Sister also speaks to the invisibility of women and girls of colour in the eyes of government and authorities, illustrating how blame for the circumstances of their lives is placed on them instead of on the systemic oppression they are forced to endure. The novel illustrates the heart-wrenching truth that a child’s safety is a communal responsibility that is violated, in life and on the page, time and time again. Gunraj evokes questions that are pressing and profound: whose lives are valued? Whose lives are protected and whose are disposable?