Bittersweet explorations of love, loss

Cushla McKinney reviews A Sister In My House, by Linda Olsson. Published by Penguin Random House.

Auckland author Linda Olsson was born and raised in Sweden and she brings an outsider’s sensibility to her writing, bittersweet explorations of lives shaped by love and loss, abandonment and memory, loneliness and connection. A Sister in My House, her sixth novel, is no exception.

A year after the death of her partner Maya, the story’s narrator Maria is living in self-imposed exile in the Spanish village of Cadaqués where she spends her days drifting indeterminately from one moment to the next with no plans or expectations for the future. Then she receives a message from her half sister, Emma, a response to an invitation extended two years earlier at their mother’s funeral and long since forgotten. Although a visit from a sister she barely knows and whose childhood presence she deeply resented is far from welcome, Maria reluctantly agrees and they spend six days together, talking about their lives and the tragedy that tore their dysfunctional family apart, the accident that killed Maria’s twin, Amanda.

Both women have been profoundly influenced by both Amanda’s death and their mother’s belief that happiness tempts disaster, Maria by fleeing emotional attachment and Emma by accepting whatever crumbs of love she can find, regardless of the cost. Because the brief time she had with Maya was the only time Maria was truly happy, her loss serves as confirmation of their mother’s warning. For Emily, however, the breakdown of her marriage has made her realise that life is shaped not just by events but by the way in which we react to them. And the profoundly different memories she has of their childhood challenge the primary assumptions upon which Maria has built her life.

One of the book’s central themes is that we cannot assume to know what another person is thinking, and this is emphasised by the use of a first-person narrator. Everything we see and hear is from Maria’s perspective and, like her, we only know Emily from outside. She as the good daughter; the one who stayed behind to care for their mother after Amanda’s death, who married Maria’s abandoned boyfriend in her stead, and who has come to extend a hand of friendship and forgiveness to her estranged sister.  Olsson is a gentle author and carefully navigates her way through the narrative, allowing room for both women to speak and hear each other’s truths in a way that opens rather than closes the door to mutual understanding.

- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

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