Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2016

My Sister Chaos (2014), by Lara Fergus

My Sister ChaosMy Sister Chaos is a remarkable feat of creativity.  Set in an unnamed country with three female characters known only as the cartographer, the sister and the mathematician, it tells a story of love that transcends a chaos that few of us could possibly imagine.  The novel won the 2012 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Debut Fiction (2012), and the Dobbie Literary Award(2011).

The story begins with the cartographer obsessively mapping her house.  She has been separated from her sole surviving relative, her sister, since they fled civil war in their home country and her sister abandoned her in the motel where they had been placed as refugees.  The cartographer had been employed on a high level project mapping her country, but now she works at a lower level because even though she has learned the language of her new country, others have made assumptions about her competence.  (See a Sensational Snippet here). She makes sense of traumatic experiences that are gradually revealed by bringing order to her house.  Nothing can be disturbed because that would interfere with the mapping process.   It becomes clear to the reader that the cartographer has a warped sense of reality because of all that she has been through.

What complicates her mapping process is that her map is rather like the kind of maps I heard about this weekend at the Bendigo Writers Festival in a session with Kim Mahood.  Mahood has just published what sounds like a fascinating book called Position Doubtful (which I have on order from Readings so I haven’t read it yet).  In conversation with Susan Martin, she talked about the complexity of maps which incorporate both space, time and story.  At its most simple, a topographically correct map can show using colour as a legend the shifting edges of a lake at different times in its flood cycle.  Mahood develops her maps through negotiation with the indigenous owners of the land, and you can see one of these maps which depicts a fire path here.  The map takes into account the intensity of the fire, and it also depicts a spiritual being.  Although it’s topographically correct, it’s not about horizon and perspective…

In My Sister Chaos the cartographer’s map is not just a scale drawing of her house.  She has set up a drafting table as her Point of Beginning in an otherwise empty room and using compasses she draws from that point to create her map.  Theoretically, this means that, from her Point of Beginning, she will measure every little distance and angle to map the entirety of the house, nothing added, nothing omitted.  She is determined to include every change, level and movement, and as the story unfolds, she encounters conceptual difficulties in accommodating chaotic change she wasn’t expecting and which threatens her fragile sense of security.

Because her twin sister turns up, disturbing the sterile impersonal atmosphere of the house.  The cartographer responds by confining her to a drop sheet in a corner of the room.  She fears spills, object displacement, disturbances of dust.  She cannot now concentrate on the task that has absorbed her every waking hour.  The sister accepts this apparently unreasonable behaviour because there is no alternative.  The cartographer has to be in control, it’s how she staves off madness.  The sister paints, strange, incoherent pictures, because she too has suffered trauma in the civil war, compounded by the loss of her lover, and her lover’s child, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

As this harrowing story plays out, the reader can’t help but think of refugees in our cities, struggling to make sense of horror and displacement, perhaps alone just as the cartographer is because the system for resettling refugees has failed them.  The reader becomes drawn into the cartographer’s strange world while the sister’s narrative bleeds into the story in ways that are all the more horrific because of the author’s restraint.

The mathematician plays only a small role in the plot, but it is significant because she overcomes her doubts about the cartographer to offer a highly significant moment of kindness, which changes everything.  In an inhumane world, she suggests a chance for optimism and hope.

Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year!

See also Marilyn’s review at Me, You and Books.

Author: Lara Fergus
Title: My Sister Chaos
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2014
ISBN 9781876756840
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

You can buy a copy from Fishpond: My Sister Chaos
or direct from Spinifex Press.


  1. One of the best books you have read all year . . . that’s all the recommendation I need! It sounds absolutely fascinating and I am intrigued by the characters.


    • Actually, Karenlee, this is a book that will interest many authors from a technical sense. It’s not just unpacking the map-making (and obviously the author had to understand a lot about it *and* be able to explain it in a way readers can understand and maintain an interest in) but also the skill in having such a limited palette of characters and the main one with such an inward way of looking at the world, and a setting that is really not much more than a house. I read it as a reader and was fascinated, but I think reading it as an exercise for a writer learning her craft would be fascinating too.


  2. Thanks. That is a book I must read. I share her complusion over maps.


    • I used to use maps in my teaching. Many teachers get little kids to write a journal each week, as a way of getting them to write about things that they know about, but sometimes I used to get the kids to map their weekend instead. And that raised issues of time and chronology as well as space. The kids used to love doing it…


  3. I was looking forward to this review after reading your author interview, now I am looking forward to reading the book.


    • All right – after reading your sensational snippet. But I was looking forward to it.


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