The Woman Inside
In Barbara Gowdy’s new novel, Little Sister, an unusual haunting sparks a deep reflection on motherhood, family, identity
In the late 1990s when I first arrived in Toronto, I shared an apartment with Mariko Tamaki, who was, like me, an emerging writer. We passed the books Falling Angels and We So Seldom Look on Love back and forth, asking each other the questions, How does she do it? How does she think of these things? It was a time in my life, my early twenties, when I held tight to many possibly immature, and definitely misguided, beliefs about Canadian literature—that it was all terribly boring, that the only truly innovative work was coming out of the East Village in New York City or the Mission in San Francisco, or Montreal 20 years earlier. But Barbara Gowdy was an exception, stacked alongside Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz and Eileen Myles on our cheap IKEA shelves. Her prose was sparse and muscular and she wrote about things that were totally strange. But you did not have to go to This Ain’t the Rosedale Library or your friend’s staff pick shelf at Book City to find it; Gowdy was unquestionably part of the CanLit mainstream, her books were on the tables at Chapters, where Mariko and I worked as booksellers.
Almost 20 years later, on a terrible news day in early 2017, one that would stretch into what feels like an infinite period of slow democratic demise (although I did not fully realize it at the time), a tweet stood out between the depressing headlines and apocalyptic memes. It was an announcement about the upcoming arrival of Little Sister. It felt like an antidote to that bad day, for the way in which Gowdy finds beauty amid the most awful moments in life.
Gowdy’s fans have been waiting a while. It has been ten years since the publication of her last novel, Helpless, in 2007. A creepy and precise literary thriller about a near-empathetic pedophile, it was met with mixed reviews from some readers who could not quite accept the material, especially coming from a female literary writer. The novel was a bestseller and did well critically—it was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, longlisted for the Giller and won the Trillium award—but one got the impression that its author, who has always taken risks—novels narrated by elephants, necrophiliacs—had, to say the least, gone too far for some. Which is too bad, because Helpless is a modern masterpiece.
With Little Sister, without a doubt Gowdy renews her reputation as one of Canada’s most innovative writers. Her prose is clean and economical—nothing extraneous to cloud the sentence. And it is partly her striking style that allows the reader to follow her to peculiar places. (I am conscious, as I write this, of every adjective and adverb.) If you had asked me if I would like to read a book about a woman who wakes up in another woman’s body from time to time, the answer would be no. But when it comes from Gowdy, I am willing to go along, because the effect is much deeper and more interesting than your average Parent Trap/Freaky Friday narrative gimmick.
As I reflect on her earlier work, it occurs to me that mainstream publishing has caught up to Gowdy. Although books like We Seldom Look on Love were perhaps outliers in their time, increasingly, Gowdy’s strange oeuvre has a lot more company in the front-of-store displays at major book retailers; Claire Cameron’s forthcoming novel, The Last Neanderthal, for example, is narrated by a family that walked the Earth on those short legs 40,000 years ago, and Gowdy’s new novel comes a year after Yann Martel’s last, which brought us a widow nestled inside her husband’s corpse. The prize lists are full of books with extraordinary premises.
But Gowdy still offers something startling and original in a field of books with strange and magical storylines. This time we follow the story of sensible 30-something Rose, whom we meet at the repertory theatre her family owns and runs, shortly before she has a strange, out-of-body experience during a thunderstorm that changes the course of her life.
She finds herself right inside the body of another woman, not in a dream, but as though trying on her skin suit and walking around. Rose is an otherwise plain and unambitious woman, and Harriet, the person she inhabits for finite time periods, is a perfect stranger. It is only Rose who knows what is happening. Harriet herself is unaffected.
If Rose were into astrology, she would probably know she was deep into her Saturn Return, that time of life between your late twenties and early thirties when you are reassessing who you are and what you want from life. It is a time when women are pressured to settle down, have kids, have “it all.” Rose definitely does not. She has a relationship with a man she sleeps with a few times a week that is about as passionate as a lukewarm friendship. Her mother is slowly succumbing to dementia and Rose is not sure how to deal with that. She also never reckoned emotionally with the accidental death of her younger sister, Ava, for which she still feels responsible. Similar to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Little Sister captures the loneliness and ennui particular to 30-something women who stand by as their peers are having children or spectacular careers, or both, and are starting to discover the world suddenly does not value them as it once did.
We watch Rose inhabit Harriet each time there is a thunderstorm, and while at first she thinks she is having a migraine or has been drugged, eventually she gives up asking what is happening and focuses on Harriet and the mystery of who she is. Instead of consulting scientists, doctors and psychics, Rose keeps her secret to herself and comes to be obsessed with Harriet’s personal problems, which allow her to escape her own. But the question of why it is happening, and what will happen if she meets Harriet, or if she never comes back from Harriet’s body—this is the suspense that drives the novel. The reader wonders if, and when, Harriet will ever find out about these internal hauntings, and then about whether or not Rose can succeed in helping Harriet with the crisis in her life.
On another level, Rose’s inhabiting of Harriet’s body gets at the nature of writing itself. Gowdy’s descriptions of Rose occupying Harriet while retaining her own consciousness let us see through Rose’s eyes as she decides to do and say things as Harriet. It is remarkably similar to what it is, in the most magical moments of writing, to embody a character.
Harriet? Who was Harriet? Rose had never before dreamed that she was someone else. Or inside someone else. Yes, inside more accurately described the feeling of visiting, as opposed to having, the woman’s body.
For some writers this is what it can feel like to wake up after walking around inside someone after a day of work, to imagine what it is to see their hand move to grab something, to look out the window at the wind in the trees and try to hear their thoughts. Rose finds it is always a little shaky, and she retains her authorial thoughts and feelings all the while. But Harriet acts upon her as much as the other way round (again, this is not unlike writing), even when Rose realizes the depth of Harriet’s sadness and decides to intervene despite the risk of being found out.
Gowdy has always been adept at melancholy, and the heart of Little Sister is about grieving as much as it is about a woman who has a little astral projection problem. While inside Harriet, whenever she catches a glimpse of a reflection, she sees her sister Ava’s eyes. When Harriet becomes unexpectedly pregnant and Rose finds herself growing emotionally attached to the fetus, she grieves the hasty hysterectomy she herself had as a younger woman, and finds herself trying to steer Harriet’s life toward what she imagines would be a better future.
She brooded over Harriet’s baby. Lately, every faint tickly noise—the car engine cooling, the dishwasher starting—was the baby’s heartbeat.
Little Sister is named for Rose’s deceased sibling, and the memory of Ava is what keeps Rose, consciously and unconsciously, obsessed with Harriet and drives her fixation on motherhood, an identity she cannot have biologically. That she is at the same time losing her mother only deepens the predicament Rose finds herself in. The speculative situation forces some pretty meaningful exploration about the complicated and often contradictory feelings women can have about the choice to be mothers, or not. Who is Rose once she has spent time inside Harriet, once she has felt connected to her pregnancy? Is she a mother, a child? Gowdy is careful not to moralize about abortion, although the narrative could have easily tipped over into this territory. Instead she deftly guides Rose through honest self-reflection.
Little Sister manages to be a lot of books at once—a suspenseful, cinematic romp through a series of external and internal storms, a sometimes sexy comedy, a graceful story of a woman trying to make sense of her life choices. For the Gowdy fan, they are all well worth the wait.