The way it is, if it really is.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 9th September 2015
Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Svimlende Muligheter, Ingen Frykt (Staggering Opportunities, No Fear)
Translated by: John Irons
The narrator of our tale is in the attic; presumably she’s locked in. Through the window she can see her sister, Ragna, and Ragna’s husband digging by a tree. It’s always been like this; our narrator struggles to gain recognition, Ragna’s attention and favour.
The Looking-Glass Sisters is a tale of love, worry, mental and physical health and unreliable narrators. A simple plot with a complex background, it studies the affects desire for love and companionship, accompanied with a lack of understanding and knowledge, can have on situations.
From the reader’s point of view, this book is about the narrator’s ability to relate events reliably. The set-up can be linked to the idea of the mad woman in the attic – in fact one of my own thoughts, whilst trying to root around in all the bits and pieces provided, was whether Gabrielsen was evoking Jane Eyre. This may sound odd, especially considering I don’t believe she is, but this is a point I’d like to make – The Looking-Glass Sisters presents an unstable mind and asks you to work out what is happening, what is true and what is false; the crucial element of Gabrielsen’s – the condition of the narrator – is only ever hinted at; the physical is easier to work out but you realise there is some mental instability, too. This means that there is a lot you can state about this book without knowing whether you’re near the truth and what’s so great about this is that it’s not frustrating; your interpretation, what you yourself bring to the table, is of great value. You’ve a guiding hand but in many ways, in most ways, this book will be exactly what you make it. (It’d make an excellent book club choice.)
The narrator presents herself – physically disabled (of that there is little argument) and the bane of her sister’s life. She knows she is a burden and wishes it were different, wishes Ragna gave her more time, supported her better. Shown through the text is the unrequited love of the narrator for Ragna; it’s not simply that she wants attention, it’s that she needs love.
This is how the reading goes for a time until the narrator starts to provide snippets of conversations that read as true – and they don’t conform to what she’s said in the past. Suddenly you’re presented with a different concept, that perhaps Ragna does care about the narrator and the narrator is being difficult. Perhaps it’s not that the narrator is unloved, it’s that she creates problems herself.
Again, it’s not so simple. It could be unrequited love, it could be the miscommunication, misunderstanding between two sisters who do love each other, or it could be that the narrator is unreliable due to her mental state. It could be a case of being unable to let go of past misfortunes and arguments instead of moving on. Gabrielsen has a firm hand on the story’s progression, teasing out the details so you have ample time to consider each possibility before moving on to the next. And each time that ‘next’ isn’t just a new possibility, it’s the evolution of the previous – that is to say, there’s a bit of every possibility in the whole and life is always moving forward.
It’s hard to say for certain what happens, what has happened and will happen. It’s hard to say exactly who the characters are, to come to a conclusion as to whether Ragna’s husband is someone she loves, someone whose thumb she resides under, or someone simply who’s frustrated, actually cruel. It’s hard to assign ages to the characters insofar as how they come across (their actual ages are suggested). And it’s hard to place a label on the narrator, to know who she is and what is going on with her – perhaps this is the point. This is her truth and it shouldn’t just be ignored, covered by small smiles and patronisation. Is she even alive at this point? Are there even two sisters?
In picking up this book you have to be prepared for an entire book’s worth of ambiguity – it rules here but the book would not be the same without it. It’s the lack of answers that make this novella what it is, that naturally extends the time you’ll spend thinking about it.
The Looking-Glass Sisters is an extremely slow burner, different, beautifully restrained, and full of ideas and thoughts to ponder over. You’ll want to give it your full attention and perhaps have a pencil handy which you might then offer to the narrator because she has much time to write and little in the way of tools.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
September 11, 2015, 1:22 pm
It sounds a bit Scandi Noir, so possibly not to everyone’s taste. I’m going to add it to my TBR list.
September 12, 2015, 12:02 pm
Oooh unreliable narrators make for such engaging reading, especially if well done. A slow revealing of the truth – “beautifully restrained” – beautiful description & sounds like a wonderful read.
September 13, 2015, 10:34 pm
Oh excellent. I love unreliable narrators in general, but narrators who are unreliable about FEELINGS. Yay.