Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Fiction
For Fans of: The Blue Room, The Wasp Factory
Ever since reading Wuthering Heights there’s nothing I like more than a good unrealiable narrator…and they don’t get much more unreliable than the narrator of Gohril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters – the latest addition to Peirene Press’ ‘Chance Encounter’ series.
I can feel them right next to my ear as I lie here, thump after thump, until the sounds grow fainter and close around me.
Translated from the original Norwegian by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters is a sinister tale exploring the limits of sisterly affection; Gabrielsen captures the tense relationship between two middle-aged sisters in a remote part of Norway. Our narrator has been bed-ridden since a young age and is cared for by her older, beautiful sister Ragna. However, their precariously balanced relationship takes a turn for the worst when a man – Johan – intrudes on their delicate co-existence. The addition of a third party tips the scales and mayhem ensues.
This book is riddled with ambiguity – which is what makes it such a delightfully gripping read. Right from the start, Gabrielsen has you right where she wants you – you only ever know exactly as much or as little as she wants to let go as she sculpts and molds this intangible truth. For instance, the novel starts off in the present with our narrator listening to the eerie sounds of digging coming from outside (or is it just her narration that makes them eerie?), before the reader is disorientated by being transported back to a year earlier when this sequence of events was put into motion.
Life has received me with hands that were far too polished. I glided away, slid, slipped from the good things in life as soon as I had been born. That is why I find myself in this remote corner of limited possibilities.
Gabrielsen keeps you on your toes, rewriting your perception of this sibling relationship and persuading you to constantly reassign your sympathy from one sister to the other. Is the narrator being unfairly demanding, greedily craving her sister’s whole attention for herself? Or is Ragna impatient and heartlessly cruel because her sister’s affliction prevents her from living the kind of life she dreams of?
I found most of my changes in allegiance came later on in the novel when it became much clearer that a lot of what the narrator had mentioned previously had to be called into question. What you first thought was cruelty in Ragna quickly became a figment of her younger sister’s imagination. Throughout much of the book she’s convinced that her older sister and Johan are trying to ditch her in a home…but the events just don’t add up. Don’t get me wrong, there are clear moments when Ragna has definitely overstepped the mark. But when the narrator recounts the ritual she uses to cast a curse on Johan, you have to question how much of what she’s been telling you is true.
I don’t know if it’s something about obscure European literature or if Peirene Press just have a stellar editorial team (perhaps a bit of both!), but I’ve not read a Peirene publication yet that hasn’t failed to unsettle me – and The Looking-Glass Sisters is no exception. I’m still not sure which events I believe happened in Gabrielsen’s book but I think that is a fantastic way to leave it – the sisters live in a vicious circle in which they can’t live without each other despite wanting otherwise. With no conclusive ending, we can only imagine that the sisters’ symbiotic relationship goes on.
Disclaimer: This book was sent to me to review by Peirene Press. All opinions expressed here are my own.