The Looking-Glass Sisters

looking glass

Gohril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters, despite its pretty title, is an ugly book. Its titular sisters live together – or more accurately co-exist – in the house where they grew up, the older, who narrates the story, has been crippled from childhood, dependent on the younger, Ragna, for her care. Both are immersed in their personal unhappiness, resenting the dependence from each side of the relationship – until, that is, Ragna meets a man, Johan, and the dynamics begin to change.

The novel opens with a scene from its conclusion, with the narrator banished to the attic, and Ragna and Johan already married:

“My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window.”

So quickly does Gabrielsen establish the novel’s poisonous atmosphere (aided by translator, John Irons), that the digging of a hole almost immediately feels more ominous than the action of two keen gardeners. A year earlier, we see the state of war which exists between the two sisters: Ragna’s first words are an explosion of frustration: “You’ve got to go.” As the novel is told from the other sister’s point of view, it is difficult not to be sympathetic:

“She wants to put me in a nursing home in the village, that’s where she wants to park me; she’s threatened to do it before. I’m not very old, just partially paralysed. I’ve always lived here and will never leave this house.”

However, despite its fairy-tale title, this is not a novel with clearly defined good and evil, Cinderella versus her vicious step-sister. The narrator is, in fact, fully aware of her effect on Ragna: “…is she absent from her own life because I make demands on her the whole time?” And she can be demanding, waking Ragna to massage her legs when she feels cramp coming on:

“‘A bit harder!’ I shout out into the room. ‘Can’t you do it a bit harder?’ I yell as loudly as I can. I fling myself forward and grab her arm.”

She tells herself, “Ragna is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of existence.” Ragna’s unhappiness is also explained:

“I’ve always liked to think of Ragna as one of those people who find every experience disappointing.”

The irony of the title is that each sister feels she perfectly understands the other but neither of them sees themselves clearly.

When Ragna begins her relationship with Johan, her sister goes out of her way to make her presence felt, for example when the couple first make love:

“I howl. Johan comes with a groan, my sister lets dry air escape from the slit of her mouth.”

The narrator is frightened of the dissolution of their own relationship and of her sister’s apparent happiness. Her fears are not groundless: the intention to place her in a nursing home is real, and Johan will not even talk to her, instead directing comments about her to her sister. Her reaction to this is to become an irritant, insinuating herself into their company.

Gabrielsen is very good at unearthing the pettiness at the heart of much of the novel’s rage. The use of the single toilet is one battle ground; Johan usurping the narrator’s chair is another. She is also adept at immersing the reader in the physicality of the narrator’s world: her body, the house, her physical needs. The narrator’s contempt for her sister seems partly rooted in the idea that Ragna represents the physical world whereas she aims to exist in the realms of the intellect. Hence her need for books from the library, and the notes she makes in her copy of Home University; also her assumption that Ragna’s relationship with Johan is purely physical. Eventually, we ask ourselves how much her confinement to the house is a choice. Her banishment to the attic might be seen as an ironic reflection of her desire to place herself above others.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is not a pleasant read – you are entering a cold world without kindness – but I found its icy brilliance fascinating. Ultimately it is asking the question that all literature asks: how should we live our lives?

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16 Responses to “The Looking-Glass Sisters”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve read other reviews of this which commented on the bleakness and it certainly sounds like a hard read, if a truthful one. Living close together, co-dependent, can warp the nicest of natures. Sounds like one you have to be emotionally strong to deal with.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Excellent review as ever, Grant. It sounds pretty brutal – I might have to find the right moment to read this one. How old are the two sisters when Ragna meets Johan? For some reason I had formed the impression they were elderly, but now I’m wondering if they might be younger…

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s a good question – they are not young, as certain uncomplimentary references to Ragna make clear, but I don’t think they are as old as they might at first appear.

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Wow, an ugly book, what agreat line to pull readers into your review. I haven’t read this one yet, tossing up as to whether its better topick up pre or post Christmas.

    • 1streading Says:

      Ugly, of course, in terms of the emotions on show – otherwise rather elegantly constructed. Perhaps best read before Christmas – January can be bleak enough on its own!

  4. Melissa Beck Says:

    I love how you describe the setting of the book as a “poisonous atmosphere.” It’s one of those books that is not pretty to read and makes us uncomfortable. But as a result it’s one of those reads that we think about long after we finish it.

  5. poppypeacockpens Says:

    Brilliantly astute Grant… certainly made an impact when I read it but definitely felt irneeds at least one – it not a few – rereads to fully appreciate the multi layers and nuances of this one. So much for the mantra ‘read in a two hour stint’ I’m finding most the Peirene Press novellas warrant far more of my attention than some of the bigger tomes… 😆

    • 1streading Says:

      You’re absolutely right. It’s like poetry – read quickly but requiring many re-reading to be fully understood. It’s one of then reasons I increasingly like shorter books.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not sure I’m in the place for ugly presently, but an excellent review Grant. I saw the film Force Majeure recently, which expertly depicts a marriage coming under appalling strain. It was so well done that I found it almost distressing to watch. A compliment to the film, but as Jacqui says you need the right moment.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve also seen the film and it’s certainly difficult to forget. For some reason I can cope with more depressing / upsetting subject matter in written form – but perhaps that is because I have more control over my exposure (that, or a lack of imagination!)

  7. Bellezza Says:

    I am always fascinated by the books which Peirene Press publishes, and this promises to be yet another. Love the juxtaposition between the pretty title and not so pretty content. Love reading books which make me think about how lives are lived…

  8. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    “How should we live our lives?”

    Such a poignant question that hangs over this whole novel, a question that isn’t answered by staring at the looking-glass, as we remember from Snow White’s wicked stepmother!

    It was interesting for me to have read this straight after Magda Szabo’s The Door, which is another novel of an intense relationship, but seen from one perspective. It made me think about the effect of community, because in that relationship, one of the characters had strong connections with a number of members of the community, but Magda (the lady writer – her friend and employer always held suspicions about her, which ultimately undermined their relationship).

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