Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2019

A Sister in My House, by Linda Olsson

You can tell by the title that this novel is about estrangement.  A Sister in My House — not My Sister, and emphatically My House.  What sustains interest in the novel is whether there can be genuine reconciliation, or not.

Linda Olsson is a Swedish-born New Zealand author who lives in Auckland. She writes intense explorations of the human heart and I suspect that readers will either love her quiet reflective style or not, though it might depend on a reader’s mood at the time.  I very much admired The Kindness of Your Nature (2011) despite its melancholy tone (see my review) but was less enamoured of Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs (2005) which was a best-seller in New Zealand and published in 25 countries.  I think that might have been because I listened to it as an audio book en route to work back in 2014, and it might perhaps have been a different experience if I had read it as print, and in the peaceful environment of my home, lingered over the prose.

Which is how I read A Sister in My House, and it is a beautiful book.  Maria is a very private person, protecting herself from much in the way of contact with other people after the loss of the love of her life.  She has found refuge in a house she rents in a small Spanish village.  It was where they had the first moments of real happiness in her lonely life, and now, damaged—perhaps irrevocably—by traumatic loss and feeling no hope that she can ever be happy again, she doesn’t want to share the house or her memories with anyone.

It was when Maria was enjoying her brief happiness that a chance meeting with her long-estranged sister Emma led her to issue a casual invitation for her to visit. She regretted it almost immediately, and was relieved when nothing came of it.  But two years later Emma makes contact, and asks if she might come.  Maria is distraught.  She is mired in grief, and can’t cope even with the cleaner’s innocuous question about which bedroom to make up for her sister.

… the words struck me as I had swallowed something hot and heavy.  And once ingested, they came to rest somewhere deep inside me, burning.  The realisation that when evening arrived, my sister would be here.  Would sleep in one of the beds.  Occupy one of the rooms.  Invade the space I considered mine.  And affect the atmosphere.  Not because of some intention on her part.  No, it was me.  I was the problem.  What I consider mine has always felt so very… I am not sure how to describe it.  Fragile perhaps.  So exposed and vulnerable.  In every way.  I am unable to share anything that truly means something to me.  And when circumstances force me to, all I want to do is walk away.   Leave everything behind.  It is forever ruined for me. (p.13-14)

But when Emma arrives, it is clear that all is not well with her either, and these two, estranged for so many years, edge delicately around each other to avoid explaining for as long as possible.  Neither is mean or spiteful, they simply don’t know how to talk to each other, or to reveal their private pain. Alienated as they are, they share the loss of another sister in childhood, and it becomes clear that negotiating their memories of that traumatic day is the key to some kind of tentative resolution.

Mistakes are made, and more misunderstandings accrue, and though it’s all very quiet and civilised, the tension accumulates.  For such a gentle exploration of human dynamics, this book holds out the possibility of redemption beyond each page almost like a psychological thriller.

haven’t read Sonata for Miriam (2009), or The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (2016) but they have (according to Wikipedia) also been international successes, so I’m hoping they also turn up at my library one day.

Author: Linda Olsson
Title: A Sister in My House
Publisher: Penguin Books, Penguin Random House NZ, 2018, 199 pages
ISBN: 9780143770763
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: A Sister in My House


Responses

  1. This book (your review of) resonates with me more than you might think. Milly has lots of sisters who have years of estrangement, from each other, from Milly, though she’s in the middle, the conciliator. They definitely have ‘space’ issues, and they talk and talk and sometimes the problem they are dealing with is a proxy for the real problem, but it mostly works.

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    • Well, you know that Christmas is the worst time for family conflict because there’s this myth about happy families all getting together and so many people feel they ought to do it because it’s a time of reconciliation etc. But families that don’t get on, don’t get on any better because it’s Christmas. And there isn’t always a dramatic reason (as there is in this book), it’s usually a clash of values. You can grow up in the same family and still have totally different values that ‘being tolerant’ just can’t resolve.

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  2. […] A Sister in My House, by Linda Olsson […]

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