In the middle of Little Sister, an exceptional character materializes, shines brightly through several lines of luminous dialogue, then disappears never to be seen again. Her name is Shannon, and she is the brief childhood acquaintance of the novel’s protagonist, Rose. Eleven-year-old Rose falls in love with 13-year-old Shannon – an impudent, self-confident, pragmatic dreamer with a genius IQ, who weaves entrancing stories about Indian maidens and constructs lean-tos from downed branches and other debris in the woods.
This capable and thoroughly likable child is my favorite character among many appealing characters, whose strength lies in the allure of their charming ordinariness. They all seem to expertly shoulder the tragedy of being human by virtue of a sweet, long-suffering equipoise and an understated humor. Whether we speak of Rose’s mother, Fiona, who sinks slowly into gentle dementia; or Lloyd, the ex-hippie, ex-convict, who’s done time for drug violations, and who loyally earns his keep as Rose’s handyman; or Rose herself, a shy, self-effacing, slightly overweight 34-year-old who lives with a tragic secret, slowly revealed as the plot unwinds.
“Magical realism is loosely defined as realism combined with surrealism or fantasy . . .”
Of all these wonderful personalities, Shannon emerges as the most vivid, while embodying both the best and the worst aspects of the novel: a strong presence, combined with a lack of connectedness to everything that surrounds her. She’s here and she’s gone, and Rose may occasionally recall her in adulthood, but to little discernible purpose. This weakness of the narrative, in my opinion, reflects a bigger weakness – a bigger lack of connectedness – within the very genre itself, for which the author, Barbara Gowdy, is well-known: magical realism.
Magical realism is loosely defined as realism combined with surrealism or fantasy, and its best-known practitioner is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist whose powerful, award-winning works include Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This review may well reveal more about this reviewer than about the genre, or even about Gowdy’s book, because I readily admit to never having warmed to this style of writing. If Marquez could not win me over, it’s hard to imagine who could, as his prose is undeniably powerful. Give me Tolstoy, for instance, or Austen, or Hemingway – or any of scores of others – who write about everyday people and life in a way that doesn’t feel the need to rely on shock to rivet the reader’s attention.
Speaking of shock: The central premise of Little Sister is the sudden, recurring transference – triggered by lightning flashes – of Rose’s consciousness from her everyday existence to the body of a strange woman, gradually revealed to be Harriet Smith, editor at a local book publishing company. During these episodes, Rose experiences Harriet’s sexual activities, bathroom activities, yoga sessions, near suicide. She discovers that Harriet’s eyes remind her of her dead sister’s, but has no clear idea of what this discovery means. These inexplicable events, taken remarkably in stride under the circumstances, are so intimate, that the lonely Rose becomes infatuated with Harriet, and stalks her in real life, determined to connect with her in a normal way.
The jolt from one kind of consciousness to the other – the move from total verisimilitude to total incredulity – is, to say the least, distracting, yet at the same time gradually weaves a number of abstract, seemingly unrelated, themes through the narrative that are intriguing, and that the reader desperately clutches in an effort to grasp the story’s underlying purpose. The nature of consciousness, the existence of God, the nebulous and devastating quality of guilt – all wind in and out of the narrative, and seem to add up to something. But what?
“Perhaps the secret of the novel lies not in its resolution, real or imagined, . . . but in the surprisingly fundamentalist nature of a sly, furtive spirituality.”
Only the second reading begins to hint at some coherence of the material, and of the powerful tropes that underlie all of Rose’s experiences. Her deep mourning – far too painful for any human to have to bear; her spiritual awakening – too subtle and episodic for the reader to immediately and consciously assimilate; the profound loneliness of the human condition – these are powerful ideas, dimly sensed on first reading, imperfectly realized on second. If only the two parts of the novel were seamless, I found myself thinking, what a wonderful story it would be.
Perhaps the secret of the novel lies not in its resolution, real or imagined, or in its delicate hints of lesbian attraction, or even in the fate of the protagonist’s little sister, but in the surprisingly fundamentalist nature of a sly, furtive spirituality. I find this idea not only shocking, but oddly satisfying. But then, it’s merely an intellectual question, fruits of a reader’s creative imagination, grounded in the “real” world of the novel, inspired by the novel’s flights of fancy. All more than enough justification to recommend this sweet, memorable novel to anyone who also enjoys a challenge.