The Looking-Glass SistersGøhril Gabrielsen
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 keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
This is a tragedy about a woman who yearns for love but ends up in a painfully destructive conflict with her sister. It is also a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological. Facing the prospect of a life without love, we fall back into isolating delusions at exactly the moment when we need to connect.
Written by Gøhril Gabrielsen.
Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons.
Chance Encounter series
192pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Gøhril Gabrielsen, born in 1961, grew up in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway, and currently lives in Oslo. She won Aschehoug’s First Book Award for her 2006 novel Unevnelige hendelser (Unspeakable Events), and was the recipient of the 2010 Tanum Scholarship for Women. Since the publication of her debut novel she has brought out further books to great acclaim in her native Norway, including Svimlende muligheter, ingen frykt (The Looking-Glass Sisters) and Skadedyr (Vermin).
John Irons studied modern & medieval languages at Cambridge before doing research within the field of poetic imagery. Since the mid 1980s he has translated poetry, fiction and non-fiction from the Scandinavian languages and was awarded the NORLA translation prize for non-fiction in 2007.
‘The sisters’ violent intimacy has its own power, but the real strength of this book lies in the way so much is withheld.’ Claire Allfree, Daily Mail
‘A work of intelligence, empathy, intensity and exceptional beauty and originality.’ Pam Norfolk, Lancashire Evening Post
‘Excellently translated by John Irons, Gabrielsen’s novel disturbs and challenges. Once we have begun, though, it is near impossible to pull away.’ Malcolm Forbes, The National
‘This is a brilliant, twisted and totally original story- the ending especially, I thought was stunning.’ The Little Ripon Bookshop
‘I think that The Looking-Glass Sisters may be my favourite Peirene.’ Lizzy’s Literary Life
My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window. As they work their way down among the scrawny roots, the spade hits the earth rhythmically. They’ve been at it for more than an hour now. I lie motionless in my bed, listening to the sounds creeping up the thin walls of the house and into my room via the vent above the chest of drawers: the dull spade-cuts, the clanking of stone against steel, spade-cut by spade-cut down into the dry soil.
What are they looking for during this day that never becomes night? What’s their business down in the depths, beneath several layers of earth? They talk quietly, don’t exchange that many words. I sense a relaxed friendliness between them. Now and then they stop and fall silent. Do they sense me? The fact that I’m awake? But they only swap the spade in order to share the work equally.
As usual, they agree about everything, my sister, Ragna, and Johan.
For a while they must have gone. But then they come back, groaning and with shuffling steps. They’re dragging something – the sounds betray them. It must be heavy, what they’re carrying. I can see them in my mind’s eye: Ragna’s knitted brow, the dogged expression on her broad face, the thin arms that hold on to the load with a determined grasp. And her husband, striving to find a grip to cope with the weight. I picture him: his stomach’s in the way, bloated, as it always is. He has to move with his back bent and with small, quick steps to keep up with her – always keeping up with her.
The load is heaved into the hole. Earth is thrown over it.
Deep down there, in the black hole in the ground, lumps of stone and sand and earth land on something soft. I can say this for sure from the short, dull thumps. I can feel them right next to my ear as I lie here, thump after thump, until the sounds grow fainter and close around me.
I am tired, on the point of falling asleep. Far away, I hear the earth being tidied, then covered, probably with peat and heather. Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth.
Imagine an attic. Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world.
Here too lots of things lie packed away: all the rubbish you don’t need, all the memories of a past crammed into boxes and suitcases, invisible to the outside world under a thin layer of forgetfulness and dust.
You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase so narrow and steep that you have to climb up on hands and knees. It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top. And it’s even more difficult to come down.
As soon as you can straighten up under the rafters, you are enclosed in dry air, but in something else as well. You wonder if it may be the darkness, the particles of dust in the strip of light from the staircase. But when you stand there perfectly calm, you know it’s the stillness, the silence from the things that cannot talk, the past that lies gagged in the unceasing rush of life from the floor below and from nature just outside.
At the end of the attic there’s a door. A faint light comes from the keyhole. You advance cautiously along the widely spaced floorboards that are so dry the splinters would bore into your toes if you were barefoot.
You place your ear to the door. After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce. You bend down, press an eye to the keyhole. It is dark. You shift position a little, move your weight on to the other leg, then bore right through with your gaze. Deep inside, among dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed. And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me.
And you ask yourself, as I have done so often of late: what am I doing in this room? What’s stopping me from being downstairs with Ragna and Johan? Am I being held prisoner? Am I seriously ill? Or is the being in the attic a creation of your own imagination, a frozen glimpse of the dread that chases up your spine, the fear of what you might see?
Most recently, I’ve had the dispiriting idea that I’m actually lying in an attic inside myself, that I am merelyan old, dusty thought about living, a hidden soul that has never been allowed to go downstairs to mix and have fun with people indoors and out.
For Reading Groups
Our reading guide for The Looking-Glass Sisters, with conversational inspiration:
1 The narrator is never named. What is the impact of this?
2 The narrator describes herself as ‘a woman on the periphery of all truths’. Can the reader believe everything that the she says or describes? What does the narrator say which suggests that her narrative is unreliable?
3 Despite the abuse the narrator claims to suffer in the hands of her sister, do you find yourself sympathising with Ragna? In what way does Gabrielsen explore the complications of sibling relationships?
4 The Looking-Glass Sisters is described as a ‘tragic love story’. In what way, and between which characters, could this be described as a ‘love story’?
5 To what extent does the form and language of the novel mirror the Nordic landscape in which it is set?
6 Despite being bleak and unsettling at times, there are moments of humour in The Looking-Glass Sisters. What role does this humour play?
7 Throughout The Looking-Glass Sisters there is a preoccupation with lakes and mirrors. What do they represent?
8 Although this appears to be a story about the relationship between two sisters, what other relationship could it be describing?
9 How does the ending of the story link back to the beginning? Does the narrator die? Does it matter either way? Is this a literal or creative death?
10 The narrator embodies the concept of the ‘madwoman in the attic’. To what extent does the book address issues surrounding female creativity and the search for a feminine voice?
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
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