#800 Prisms of sisterhood
by Alix Ohlin
Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2019
$22.95 / 9781487004866
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
Sororal bonds are complex: a pair of sisters may know each other better than anyone else does; they may see themselves reflected in the other to the extent that they expect the sister to think and behave as they do; they may compete as often as they collaborate. Sisters can also see the roles they play in each others’ lives ebb, flow, and switch over the years. And, as we all know, they can perceive their shared childhood through different prisms.
When two sisters are products of absent fathers and an indifferent mother, the magnitude of sororal complexities swells. Dual Citizens, a 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, and a 2020 finalist in the BC and Yukon Book Prizes (in the category of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize) follows two such sisters from youth to mid-life. The prism through which we view the lives of the Brossard sisters, beginning in Montreal, is that of the (four-years) older, Lark, who takes on a maternal role toward Robin early. Mother Marianne, busy working and chasing the adolescence she lost when she gave birth to Lark at 16, provides them food and shelter and only sporadic attention that is negative more often than positive. While both daughters inevitably inherit the unforthcoming and rebellious natures of their ambivalent mother, Lark possesses more of the former, Robin the latter.
The girls’ childhood is moored by their own relationship — and by the few community members who pay them attention. Feeling unloved and unnoticed by those around her, Lark focuses on school, movies, and, primarily, Robin, particularly her natural gift as a pianist. Piano teacher Mrs Gasparian becomes a close companion to both, as well as the key to unlocking Robin’s musical talents. Lark escapes her narrow confines only when a history teacher guides her through the admission process to a small college, Worthen, near Boston. Thirteen-year-old Robin, bereft at her sister’s departure, is usually alone in the Montreal apartment, as Marianne jaunts around with her boyfriend Hervé.
Geographical distance initially tests the sisters’ relationship. Lark allows her studies, part-time job in the campus computer lab, and first boyfriend to divert her attention from her sister’s loneliness, which is soon exacerbated by the death of Mrs Gasparian. However, when Lark is shattered by her boyfriend’s abandonment, Robin’s surprise visit, motivated by Hervé’s persistent intrusion into every aspect of her life, distracts Lark from heartbreak. She assumes legal guardianship of Robin, who enrols in high school and quickly becomes ensconced in Worthen’s music building, where Boris Dawidoff, a music professor, assumes the mentorship role Mrs. Gasparian previously had. Lark’s passion for her film studies class leads to a long term friendship with another professor, Olga Ivanov, and the elder sister progresses to making films, with her sister often the subject. To make ends meet, the sisters work in a group home, where Robin becomes romantically involved with a young resident, Bernard, and feels abandoned, yet again, when he returns home.
Once again, mentors and friends prove more influential than their mother in their two years leading to graduation. Dawidoff becomes an increasingly demanding mentor, inhibiting Robin’s musical freedom as he directs her towards acceptance at Juilliard. Olga also supports Lark’s successful application to grad school in film in New York City. Although Marianne does attend Lark’s graduation, a pre-grad dinner moves their relationship from cool to icy when Lark confronts Marianne about her maternal failings. The sisters’ farewell party is well attended by co-workers, friends and mentors, but not Marianne.
In their first year in Manhattan, their divergent ambitions cause chinks in their relationship. Although Lark and Robin share an apartment, their lives meet “at the edges, never the center” (p. 89). Lark is engrossed in her part-time film classes and full-time job at the campus store; Robin, while adapting socially to music school, resents the restrictions Juilliard imposes on her musical style. That summer, when Robin performs approved musical pursuits, Lark takes a position on a farm in Pennsylvania assisting noted documentary filmmaker Lawrence Wheelock as a film editor.
By their second year in New York, it is clear to the reader (but only in hindsight to Lark) that there is much about her sister of which Lark is unaware. Lark returns from Pennsylvania to find her sister in bed with Bernard, who is now a pot dealer. Robin reveals her dissatisfaction with school, where she spends less time. Still, Dawidoff persuades Robin to do a summer music tour in Europe, with Bernard in tow. Lark makes her way back to Pennsylvania, where her job description has expanded to include writing grant applications and accompanying Wheelock on work jaunts around the country.
On her return to Manhattan, Lark is dumbfounded and grief stricken to be greeted by a postcard from Robin with a daunting message: “Don’t look for me” (p.121). When Robin finally returns in November, she is uncommunicative and rebuffs Lark’s attempts to resume her maternal role. Despondent, Lark again turns to Olga for advice, quits grad school, and accepts Wheelock’s offer. The sisters do not see each other for five years.
The narrative then moves ahead several years: Lark is ensconced in a Pennsylvania village, where she is (the now very successful) Wheelock’s editor, “right-hand man,” and lover. Glad to be no longer encumbered by film-making aspirations, she is initially content to be working and travelling around the world. When she tires of her travels, Lark occupies her days editing and her nights devouring classic films. Her sole visit to Marianne and Robin (now back in Montreal) reveals the trio as “strangers connected to one another only by the thin filament of Christmas” (p. 150); she learns little about her sister’s past or present. Wheelock’s daughter, Min, whose travel experiences inspire a ten-part series about plagues and epidemics that furthers Wheelock’s success, becomes a surrogate for Robin.
However, Lark’s contentment proves temporary. As she becomes more involved in Min’s life, helping plan her wedding and being exposed to her twin babies, she becomes aware of gaps in her own, and the life she has spent many years cultivating comes crashing around her. At thirty-five, she is consumed by the desire to have a child; Wheelock does not want to father another child, though he pities her for her predicament. Thus ends a critical phase of her romantic life and career.
The sororal pattern of temporary reunions and abandonments continues through much of the remainder of Lark’s narrative. The sisters clearly feel bonds with and responsibilities to each other, and although they gradually discuss some of the events of their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, something remains missing in their relationship – a result of their varied responses to their shared past, as well as their differing natures and outlooks.
By the ending of the novel, the sisters achieve an accommodation; through bargaining, they perform a symbolic exchange. Both sisters give and take in order to achieve their respective ends, which, while divergent, prove not mutually exclusive. Robin’s present lifestyle is eccentric, light years away from the concert pianist aspirations she — or those around her — harboured for her; in some measure, though, it is a natural response to the abandonment she felt earlier in her life. Lark has finally taken some control over her life, which is more conventional than Robin’s, in keeping with her more reticent nature, and closer to her youthful passions of history and film making, while including the editing skills that she (as both Wheelock’s assistant and the novel’s narrator) has honed.
On Dual Citizens’ first page (set in the novel’s present) Lark states, “I am the only one who dwells on our history, probably because I am the one who chose and formed it” (p. 3). With these words, Ohlin reminds readers of the conditions of a first-person narrative: readers have access to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, which creates immediacy and intimacy; we also see other characters only through the lens of that narrator, which can create filters and distance. When, as is the case with Lark, the narrator is reticent, a text can make demands of the reader. In the case of Dual Citizens, sharp readers will find the challenge rewarded.
Ginny Ratsoy is an Associate Professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, specializing in Canadian literature. Recent courses have included The Environment in Canadian Literature and Literature of the British Columbia Interior. She has published articles on theatre, playwrights, and small cities in British Columbia, and edited books, including Playing the Pacific Province: An Anthology of British Columbia Plays, 1967-2000 (Playwrights Canada Press, 2001, co-edited with James Hoffman); Theatre in British Columbia (Playwrights Canada Press, 2006); and, with W.F. Garrett-Petts and James Hoffman, Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? Community Engagement in Small Cities (New Star Books, 2014). Her latest academic publication is about a wonderful third-age learning organization, The Kamloops Adult Learners Society, in No Straight Lines: Local Leadership and the Path from Government to Government in Small Cities, edited by Terry Kading (University of Calgary Press, 2018), reviewed by Michael Lait in The Ormsby Review no. 473 (January 27, 2019). She treasures her relationship with her only sibling, a sister who is four years her junior but many years wiser.
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