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The world of My Sister Chaos (Triangle Publishing’s Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction winner and a finalist for this year’s Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Debut Fiction) is disconcerting. Always near the surface of this quiet and speculative methodical tale is the fact that we are in a time of crisis.
As the book opens, we meet the narrator (never named), a cautious, deliberate woman performing what should be a common occurrence, a nonevent—coming home for the day. She stands outside of her house and studies it, as if she were a military operative making sure the target is safe.
Because of political overthrow and war, she has fled her country. She has lost her partner and her mother to the war, and has also lost touch with her twin. In essence, she’s a refugee. Fortunately, she secured work in her field, cartography, and is able to rent the small house. She copes with brutal memories by making a map, inch-by-inch, of her home, a calculated antidote to the chaos which made many flee. As she tellingly reflects, “Some of the others won’t buy anything they can’t carry or fit in a car boot.” This novel isn’t science fiction. Instead it presents a plausible “now,” Margaret Atwood-like.
It’s hard not to imagine the geography of turmoil as resembling author Lara Fergus’ native Australia, with its vast spaces and spare outback. There have been battles—and rape, the byproduct of all war, as Susan Brownmiller wrote in the seminal Against Our Will. The narrator raises the issue of ethnic discrimination. She was affected by it, but isn’t more specific, a weakness in the novel. There is a thin line between creating mystery and ambivalence about a character, and withholding useful information. Fergus will want to explore that in her next novel.
Every night the narrator measures and charts a topographical map of her house. The work is slow, painstaking, calmly maniacal. “I know every curve of the floorboards beneath my feet. I know the lie of the landscape that is my house better than anyone. I can never be lost.” I can never be lost? That’s tempting fate.
Indeed an unexpected visitor—her sister, her twin—rattles her sense of omniscience and security. The two have misunderstandings and express themselves in what are, for the narrator, irritatingly different ways. The twin is a visual artist who embraces the messiness of an artist. She is allotted a small space in the house. When her few belongings extend beyond the territory she’s been allowed—mere inches beyond—the narrator becomes more tense and resentful, even though her sister was not exempt from abuses of war. When searching for her lost lover the sister tried to get help from the new regime but, “The soldier isn’t listening because what she says has ceased to be of any relevance at all. He comes around the desk, grabs her arm, drags her into a small room.”
Compassion notwithstanding, in an interchange with her sister, the narrator informs us, “I accidentally laugh.” Spontaneity, a loss of control, jars her.
The narrator misses her lesbian lover, and her mother, both victimized by duplicity. She wonders who the traitors were. “I draw up the faces of my colleagues from the well of my memory and wonder which of them gave these grid references to the military.” Her home as personal safe zone with guarded boundaries is a hope, not a sure thing—her world, like the one we readers live in—is ambivalent about individual rights. The word “boundary” is literal and emotionally metaphoric; “relief,” as in “This cartographic relief,” carries a double meaning.
Much of this first novel chronicles the narrator’s nervousness over her sister’s intrusion and the more flamboyant twin’s ability to navigate life in greater depth. The twin’s facility for extroversion crystallizes when she makes a discovery about the house. In a sense, the house is the novel’s third character. It is alternatively light and dark, safe and withholding. Its secret is structural and metaphoric, and mystifies the narrator. My Sister Chaos mimics cartography in its careful, bit-by-bit deliberation. The atmosphere is almost eerie—a good eerie. What’s missing is the great ringing presence of humanity that can be a trademark of the novel, but what’s set in its place is a quiet and more sly echo of who we are and how we manage to be alive.
Stepping back from the novel into our lives we see uprisings and fascistic clampdowns every day—in the Middle East, China, Africa, Zuccotti Park, college campuses, against the poor. The world of My Sister Chaos reminds us of both nagging terrors and the possibilities of being human.
My Sister Chaos
By Lara Fergus
Paperback, 9781876756840, 214 pp.