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The Looking Glass Sisters
Gøhril Gabrielsen
Peirene Press

A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other.

Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older never dared to leave. Until one day a man arrives.

Nothing in The Looking Glass Sisters can be taken at face value; ostensibly it is the story of two sisters living in Finmark, an extremely remote corner of northern Norway.  Their physical isolation is captured in wonderful claustrophobic detail by Gabrielsen, who manages to evoke a sense of the surrounding landscape, even though the novel is narrated by the younger sister, who due to her physical disability, never leaves the house.

I reign as queen in my room, in spite of the dust and the dirt. I have the silence, my pen and books, and, not least, I own the hours when Ragna is away.

The older sister, Ragna, works hard and reluctantly cares for her sibling’s physical needs, although the resentment in this situation is brought to a head when Ragna meets Johan, whom she marries.  It is then that the younger sister’s mental state appears to unravel and the reliability of everything she says seems to be brought into question.

Gabrielsen writes beautifully and keeps the reader guessing as to the reality of the narrator’s perceptions, through ambiguity and contradiction.  However, I did not at all enjoy this novel as it was akin to imbibing poison.  The twisted heart of the main protagonist left me feeling like I’d been dipped in shit and I couldn’t wait to finish the book, so that I didn’t have to live inside her unpleasant mind any longer.

I do have a huge problem with the representation of disability and illness, both mental and physical, that we find here.  The younger sister’s handicap is represented as something repulsive and disgusting; either as a manifestation of her spiteful nature or vice versa.  In fact, we become aware that she is not as physically restricted as she makes out, as at various points in the novel she is quite capable of damaging property, rifling through other people’s belongings and trying on Ragna’s erotic underwear.

Her disability is a plot device.  However, for many people, disability and mental illness are a reality, and one which doesn’t prevent them from being pleasant human beings and useful members of society.

I was reminded of the spoiled sickly whelp, Colin, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and, of course, Shakespeare’s representation of Richard III’s deformity:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

In an era when disabled people are finding themselves under attack from punitive Government policy and mass media rhetoric that portrays them as worthless ‘scroungers’, this particularly repugnant representation of a physically disabled woman made me feel quite uneasy.