Review: The Looking-Glass Sisters, Gøhril Gabrielsen

Since discovering Peirene Press, a publisher of novellas in English translation (see my “Small Books Are Good, Too” post for a mini-review of one of their previous titles), I’ve been keen to try more of their little gems. This is the second of four novels from Gøhril Gabrielsen, a Norwegian author who lives in the far north of the country in a region called Finnmark. It’s an isolated place she uses to good effect in this novel about two sisters whose lives change – and not for the better – when one of them gets married.

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.

looking-glass sistersOur unnamed narrator is paralyzed from the waist down and keeps to her bed in a home she shares with her older sister, Ragna. Their parents had her late in life and died early, so Ragna has looked after her since they were 19 and 24. They are now in middle age, so for years have rubbed along reasonably well, although there have been small acts of cruelty on either side – for instance, as a child the narrator planted chewing gum in Ragna’s bed so she’d have her luxurious hair cut off, and Ragna stays in the bathroom so long one morning that the narrator, making her tortuous way downstairs on crutches, has an accident in the hallway.

Our unnamed narrator is paralyzed from the waist down and keeps to her bed in a home she shares with her older sister, Ragna. Their parents had her late in life and died early, so Ragna has looked after her since they were 19 and 24. They are now in middle age, so for years have rubbed along reasonably well, although there have been small acts of cruelty on either side – for instance, as a child the narrator planted chewing gum in Ragna’s bed so she’d have her luxurious hair cut off, and Ragna stays in the bathroom so long one morning that the narrator, making her tortuous way downstairs on crutches, has an accident in the hallway.

A short prologue tells us things have gotten worse: Ragna and her husband of less than one year, Johan, now keep the sister locked up in the attic. In the novella’s core section the narrator returns to the previous year, when Ragna and Johan were courting, to track the decline of this strange “little family with pus and pain in our cuts and scratches.” It all starts with her finding a letter Ragna wrote to a nursing home about committing her sister – and replacing it with a sheet of blank paper.

Gøhril Gabrielsen, from the author's Goodreads page.
Gøhril Gabrielsen, from the author’s Goodreads page.

Our discontented narrator has a compulsion to remind everyone of her inconvenient existence: “I’m here. And I’m bloody hungry!” Whenever Ragna and Johan have friends visit, she is sure to make a scene. Her other acts of resistance are largely passive, though: writing snarky messages in the blank pages of encyclopedia volumes, listening on disapprovingly as Ragna and Johan have sex on the other side of the wall, and cursing Johan by burning his hair. Ragna follows suit by pettishly withholding library books and hot meals.

What we have here is essentially a psychological thriller with a claustrophobic domestic setting. Because we see everything from the narrator’s perspective, we share her sense of outrage at how Johan has upset her comfortable life and “sabotaged our sisterly pact.” At the same time, Gabrielsen implants tiny, clever clues that this is an unreliable narrator:

Can it be that I, the helpless one, have bred the anger in her by making myself more pathetic than I am? And can it be that I, in my struggle to gain the inviolable position of victim, have forged and fashioned Ragna the violator?

Furthermore, can it be that I, after years of exaggerated care needs, have robbed her of the ability to think, to create a living, inner life?

I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.

Ultimately we have to wonder whether the person who has been telling us this whole story might be mentally compromised. How much of her mistreatment and present condition is she imagining? The way Gabrielsen counterbalances inherent trust in a narrator with skepticism as the story proceeds is remarkable. “I am reduced to an observing eye,” the protagonist tells us – and as readers we both see out of that eye and seek an objective outside view. It’s a gently thrilling book I’d recommend to you in the run-up to Halloween.


Peirene issues books in trios: this is part of the “Chance Encounter series: Meeting the Other,” along with Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger and Raymond Jean’s Reader for Hire.

With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating

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