I’m not sure what it was about “The Looking-Glass Sisters” which had me excited about it several months before Peirene Press even published it. Something about a story of two sisters in an old, dilapidated house that’s isolated in the far north of Norway captured my imagination. Reading it became an especially good experience because shortly after finishing the book I went to my first Peirene Press book club. This is held in London at Persephone’s lovely bookshop. It’s been ages since my own book club disbanded so it was a pleasure being able to discuss the book in detail over wine, cheese and biscuits with a group of clever fellow readers. This novel is particularly excellent for a book club because its filled with so much ambiguity and opinions about it varied wildly amongst our group.
The novel is narrated from the point of view of a disabled woman who is dependent on the care from her sister Ragna in everyday daily tasks from eating to bathing to dressing. It’s been this way their entire lives and the women are now middle-aged. Their parents died when they were teenagers; we never know how or why they died. The sisters’ routines filled with bickering feel wholeheartedly like they’ve been exhaustively enacted over a lifetime and you quickly get the sense of how intensely intertwined the existence of these sisters has become. It’s as if they are no longer two separate bodies: “Over the years, through conflicts and confrontations, we have shaped, kneaded and formed ourselves into a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism.” This is the most perfect description for the feeling of their co-dependency and echoes the eerie sense that one cannot exist without the other. They can’t escape each other any more than they can escape their own reflection when looking in a mirror.
Or so the narrator believes. One day Ragna disrupts the claustrophobic and solitary life they share by bringing home a rather gruff man Johan. Is he an agent of chaos that destroys their relationship or a partner that could be incorporated into the household if it weren’t for the narrator’s jealousy? The answer isn’t clear because the narrative is filtered so totally through the narrator’s subjective and frequently paranoid consciousness. Having never left the house and being trapped in the physically limited routines of her day, the narrator lives primarily in her imagination. There are echoes of Charlotte Bronte's mad woman in the attic as reimagined in Jean Rhys's novel and also Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' Her whole understanding of the world comes from her sister, the dusty standard education text books left from her early life and library books – which the narrator must badger Ragna to exchange. Indeed, she seems made up more of words and lives more in the mind than in her physically-limited body.
The narrator’s fantasies do get quite intense and graphic. They veer from the heatedly sexual to the repulsively scatological to the furiously suspicious as she believes Ragna and Johan are plotting to put her away in a care home. Again, it’s never clear whether these are her projections or if they occur in reality. I appreciated the occasional respite from the narrator’s frantic descriptions and thought process when Ragna interjects some dialogue that questions her sister’s logic. There are also occasional moments when you see some real fondness between the sisters. However, most of the time, their relationship is destructive and weighted under long-standing resentments.
“The Looking-Glass Sisters” is in many ways a mesmerizing read, but it’s also highly unsettling. It’s disturbing to think that intensely co-dependent relationships between family members can break down so severely and the disturbed areas a consciousness can drift to when a life is lived entirely in the imagination. There is a sense that the narrator’s psychology can parallel our own internal lives when we believe the world to be a certain way. Rather than the disabled sister it could very well be the author speaking to the reader towards the end of the book when she states this story has been about the sisters 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.” Viewing the story from this perspective it does take on a much more personal meaning. It made me consider the way in which my own imagination works in tandem with reality and the amount of dependency I have on other people. This book left me thinking. Gabrielsen is a highly intriguing writer.