The books, the scribblings, under the bed in my own room: I would like to have written down what I think and experience, but perhaps writing is precisely what I’m doing? A narrative about two seedy sisters and their determined struggle for a life, but also about all of us who have lapsed into laziness and fantasizing, hidden away in a room closer to the sky than the earth?
An unnamed woman lies in the attic of the house she shares with her sister. Outside her sister, Ragna, and her husband, Johan, dig a hole and heave a load into it. Or so the narrator tells us. She can’t see what’s happening outside as she is partially paralysed from the middle of her back down and weak from lack of food and drink.
She tells the story of the year leading to her incarceration in the attic. A year in which she says Ragna attempted to have her put in a nursing home. The narrator’s been partially paralysed since she fell ill before her fourth birthday. Their parents died when she was twenty-four and Ragna was nineteen. Ragna’s been her carer for the past twenty-nine years in an isolated house. Things have changed lately though, since Johan came to live next door and became a frequent visitor.
The narrator is demanding of her sister, expecting her to be continually at her beck and call. She tells us of all the neglectful things Ragna does, like going to the toilet when she wants to go in there, making her wait for breakfast and not fetching her more library books from the village. It’s difficult to tell how reliable the narrator is, particularly when she makes statements like the one I opened the review with and this one:
Words. They can still make me feel dizzy […] But when I cautiously started to change their order in a sentence the dizziness became an obsession. I experienced falling into the deepest well or abyss just by moving a subject, an object, a verb around and changing one or two small words here and there:
My sister and I live on our own, the way to the man in the next house seems slippery and muddy.
Our man slippery and muddy lives in my sister’s house, I’m in the way, on my own it seems.
It’s clear that the narrator can’t see many of the things she claims are happening in the house, she makes assumptions on the noises she hears and her interpretation of potential events.
She is also fascinated with her sister’s sexuality. When Ragna’s in the village one day, the narrator looks through her things and finds a box containing red underwear and red lipstick. She pulls the bra and pants on over her clothes, then smears the lipstick on her lips.
Supported by my crutches and wearing Ragna’s bra and panties, I move from room to room to flaunt myself. […] I open the front door so as to be gaped at by birds, heather and moor, I display myself to the lavatory, to all the things in my bedroom and hers. Gradually, I make her red secret pale, dull and my own – something Ragna doesn’t know. And in this way there is a balance in the shift of power in the space of just a few hours. I know everything about her little fairy tale, and she knows nothing about mine.
The narrator’s envious of Ragna’s freedom and fearful of a future which might see them separated:
I can’t think of anything apart from my relationship with Ragna. It’s always Ragna, little Ragna, big Ragna, difficult Ragna.
The beauty of The Looking Glass Sisters is it’s impossible to know what the truth is. There are plenty of suggestions that the narrator’s unreliable, but to what extent? Is she capable of doing the things she says she does? Is she really locked in the attic? Is the load that her sister and Johan bury at the beginning her body? Why does the title allude to an alternate world or perhaps an alternate sister? Are they two-halves of the same person?
If you like your books with enough ambiguity to leave you puzzling out what you think happened then The Looking Glass Sisters is one for you. It’s an intriguing, skilfully woven tale of two-sisters trapped in a life with each other.
Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.