Book review: The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

Two sisters, their lives a virtual mirror image… but their hearts and minds dangerously and disturbingly divided.
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril GabrielsenThe Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

From one of the darkest corners of the world comes the bleak, brutal but brilliant story of a simmering sibling love-hate relationship so caustic and corrosive that its dramatic demise can only be potentially deadly.

The Looking-Glass Sisters, fluidly translated by John Irons and set in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway where harsh midwinters see only two hours of blue-tinged twilight a day, is as unsettling as it is dark and comes from the pen of award-winning novelist Gøhril Gabrielsen.

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Gabrielsen grew up in this freezing corner of the Arctic Circle and uses its remarkable landscape as the unforgettable canvas for a novella brimming with menace, emotion, breathtaking psychological insight and fascinating ambiguity.

It is the third and final book in the Chance Encounter series from award-winning, London-based publisher Peirene Press which brings us immaculate English translations of the very best contemporary European novellas.

And this tragic piece of Scandinavian noir, featuring two sisters whose claustrophobic isolation ends when a man appears on their threshold, is an inspired choice for a series which explores what happens when you let a stranger into your life.

Nearly thirty years of isolation and mutual dependency have turned the home of two middle-aged sisters in ‘a godforsaken part of the world’ into a poisonous hotbed of accusations and resentment.

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Since their parents died, Ragna has been sole carer and nursemaid to her younger sister, our narrator, who was left partially paralysed after contracting polio when she child.

They seldom venture out, the virtually bed-bound sister tells us, and through conflicts and confrontations, they have ‘shaped, kneaded and formed’ themselves into ‘a lopsided, distorted yet complete organism.’

But that is not how Ragna sees it. Her ‘ever-present rage at the loss of her own life’ has deepened through the decades and she has now started to ‘punish’ her sister for her dependency, petulance and constant demands.

Neglected, unfed and unwashed in her attic bedroom, the unnamed younger sister contemplates the recent watershed in their relationship… the arrival of new neighbour Johan.

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As Ragna and Johan grow close, her sister fears that a marriage will divide them into ‘two irreconcilable camps… them and me’ and, after a series of cruel and disturbing incidents, becomes increasingly convinced that they plan to shuffle her off to a nursing home.

But is this really the voice of innocence and truth, or a woman who, in flashes of contrition and sympathy for Ragna, recognises that in her ‘screwed-up existence’ her imagination often goes to the most bizarre and disturbing places?

The devil of this extraordinarily challenging and chilling novella lies in the disturbing detail, both direct and tantalisingly indirect, provided by the classic unreliable narrator.

Loneliness, resentment and the desire to love and be loved are the driving forces behind a devastating story which casts a forensic eye over the fall-out from a slow-burning and destructive family rivalry.

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There is an abrasive rawness to the sisters’ rancid relationship that seems to spring from the cold outside their window, gripping heads and hearts and freezing their small, bitter battles into an increasingly complex web of suspicion and counter-suspicion.

Using the sparest of prose and the power of suggestion, Gabrielsen teases, taunts and tests her reader as we are forced to rely on the thought processes of a woman whose harrowing account may not be truthful and whose fate remains opaque even beyond the shattering conclusion.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is a work of intelligence, empathy, intensity and exceptional beauty and originality, more than adequate compensation for the sheer desolation of its disconcerting storyline.

(Peirene, paperback, £12)

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