Sibling Connections

When I was first thinking of writing a novel about Anton Chekhov, it was his late-life marriage that drew me. A prodigious breaker-of-hearts, Chekhov finally gave up his “bachelor habits” three years before he died, then, despite his status as a married man, continued to live with his sister and mother, rarely sleeping under the same roof as his wife. But over the course of my research, I grew more curious about that steady presence in his life—Masha—not only his sister, but his amanuensis, housekeeper, secretary, bookkeeper, and confidante. Though Masha never married, she did receive four proposals in her lifetime, offers she refused when Chekhov made clear his disapproval. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that he wanted to keep Masha close so that he could have a “wife” without the emotional complications of one, but given their difficult childhood, I think there was something more complex going on. Ultimately, my interest in those complications subsumed the marriage plot and before I knew it, Masha took over the whole novel that became A Russian Sister.

Stories about romantic love and sexual passion abound (there’s plenty of that A Russian Sister too!), but the particular bond between siblings features more rarely. Here are six books by Canadian authors that explore the intimate push and pull between siblings.

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Book COver Brother

Brother, by David Chariandy

We meet brothers Michael and Francis on page one as they are climbing a hydro pole in Scarborough in the 1990s, two children of parents from Trinidad. Francis, the elder, urges the younger less daring Michael on, warning him about the electricity that could light “a whole city of fear inside your head” until you climb high enough. But the brothers also live within that city of fear because they are young and Black.

In fact, Francis is already above the city. He’s dead and Michael is caring for their mother who is so devastated by the loss of her eldest son she barely speaks. Brother is Michael’s tender elegy to Francis, his memories of him recounted in a spare, lyrical prose somehow more painful to read than if they were told with the rage they deserve. Near the end of the book, we come to understand their closeness after a rare outing to see a movie ends in yet another indignity for the family. Francis, just seven, wakes up afraid. He won’t be consoled by their mother’s promise that they are “very safe.” Projecting his fear on his brother, Francis tells her, “He doesn’t believe we’re very safe.” Then he speaks for himself, “We’re not. We never were.”

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Book Cover Watching You Without Me

Watching You Without Me, by Lynn Coady

After the sudden death of her mother, Karen is obliged to return home to Nova Scotia in order to find a suitable home for her sister, Kelli, “a 250-pound mentally-handicapped woman with a skin condition.” (Coady also created a wonderfully sympathetic and unsentimental mentally-challenged character in her first novel, Strange Heaven.)

While Watching You Without Me is structured as a thriller—Karen gradually comes to realize that Kelli’s long-time care worker, Trevor, is not the benign helper he makes himself out to be—the sisters’ relationship is the heart of the story. This is what Karen thinks in Chapter One watching Trevor zip Kelli’s coat, momentarily reprieved from her responsibility to her sister: “I watched a stranger dress my sister, feeling incongruously at peace. It was a suspicious feeling, it had no place in this house, in this hinge-like moment of my and my sister’s existence.” The rest of the novel charts this existence and Karen’s progress from her sister's “keeper” to becoming a true sister herself. 

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Book Cover The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

Eli and Charlie Sisters, cowboy assassins, ride out from Oregon City in 1851, contracted to kill a man in California. The alpha, Charlie, is a hard-drinking, coarse, a miser seemingly without a conscience, while Eli, sensitive and thoughtful, yearns for a settled, tidy life. Their detours and misadventures en route to California and horrors they become involved in once they arrive make for a gory picaresque. But it was the brothers’ relationship that kept me reading.

Revisiting this novel now, I realized I remembered little of the violent, rollicking plot, but instead Eli’s caring gestures toward his brutal brother and his struggles to keep him in check. When Charlie’s hand and wrist are amputated, the surgeon, discarding the severed appendage, misses the bucket. Eli picks it up off the floor and thinks, “My touching Charlie’s arm like this would not ever have happened when it was attached, and as such I blushed from the foreignness of it. I found myself running my thumb over his coarse black hairs. I felt very close to Charlie when I did this.” Then Eli leads his ruined brother to the only refuge they have—their mother’s house.

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Book Cover Across the Bridge

Across the Bridge, by Mavis Gallant

Four of the stories in Across the Bridge concern themselves with the Carrette sisters, Berthe and Marie of Montréal. Gallant is a delightfully oblique writer, bringing her characters to life through an accrual of detail (we learn a lot about Berthe through her collection of fur coats) and momentary snippets from their lives.

These stories span five decades and portray a bond that proves stronger than any other in the sisters’ lives. In “The Chosen Husband,” they are 22 and 20, Berthe a successful professional woman “with an inborn craving to sleep with married men,” Marie with the “look of an angel,” guileless and placid. They complement each other so perfectly that when Berthe takes out her curlers every morning before leaving for the office, she hands them to Marie in the twin bed across from hers. “Marie put her own hair up and kept it that way until suppertime,” which was when the suitor they have chosen for her will drop in.

Later, a wedding picture shows the groom “with an arm around each sister and the sisters trying to clap each others hands behind his back.” A son is born, but later proves less reliable than a sister.  Widowed Marie moves back in with Berthe. In the last story, “Florida,” the sisters are in their fifties. Marie visits her son and his new pregnant wife who, looking at a snapshot of Berthe, declares her surprise that such a good-looking woman never married. Wouldn’t she want the company? “I am company,” Marie tells her. “I love my sister and my sister loves me.”

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Book Cover Nocturne

Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother, by Helen Humphreys

After Humphreys’ younger brother Martin, a concert pianist, teacher and composer, succumbed to pancreatic cancer, he came to her in a dream, asking her to tell him everything that had happened since he died. Humphreys’ answer is this slim, exquisitely-written memoir addressed directly to her absent brother. “To have you gone—you who went clear to the bottom of my world—has thrown everything off balance, has left me wandering like a ghost in my own life.” The effect is of eavesdropping on someone else’s whispered agony. We circle around Humphreys’ bereft and brotherless present, detour into the siblings’ shared past, learn about apples, Monarch butterflies, the death of Keats and how she came to write the book.

Originally, Humphreys had planned “to format my thoughts according to the structure of John Cage’s famous silent composition, 4’33”.” Although she abandoned this idea in favour of 45 short chapters, one for every year of Martin’s life, the writing was still “an act of listening” —to her brother’s playing and his life. “I am sitting here, waiting for you to make a sound, to guide me through this moment…”

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Book Cover The Innocents

The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

Ada and Evered Best live in a harsh Eden, a remote cove in 18th century Newfoundland.  When they are orphaned at the age of 9 and 11, they carry on as their parents had, surviving by “stultifying labour” and sleeping together at night for warmth and comfort. Their only contact with the outside world is through a supply ship that drops anchor annually (aptly named The Hope), though only Evered goes on board to trade their salted cod for supplies. Their isolation, combined with the fact that their parents died when they were so young, leaves the brother and sister unprepared to deal with the onslaught of puberty.

The tension in this tale of survival comes not only from the many external threats to the siblings—winter storms, starvation, the merciless ocean—but their own confusion as they uncomprehendingly follow their urges. Mid-way, Evered falls ill after going aboard The Hope then passes the virus to Ada, who almost dies.  Evered sends a distress signal from shore, which alerts a passing ship. Captain Truss, who comes to their rescue with his housekeeper, likens them to Adam and Eve. Possibly he senses their mutual shame. “Who told you that thou wast naked?” he asks an uncomprehending Evered. Then, “You aren’t lonely out here, Evered? You and Ada?”  “The question struck [Evered] as being as peculiar as the one about being naked. ‘We idn’t alone,’ he said.”

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Learn more about A Russian Sister:

In this witty and colourfully peopled novel, Caroline Adderson effortlessly plunges the reader into a 19th-century Russian tragicomedy. Aspiring painter Masha C. is blindly devoted to Antosha, her famous writer-brother. Through the years Antosha takes up with numerous women from Masha’s circle of friends, yet none of these relationships threaten the siblings’ close ties until the winter he falls into a depression. Then Masha invites into their Moscow home a young woman who teaches with her—the beautiful, vivacious and deeply vulnerable Lika Mizanova—with the express hope she might help Antosha recover.

The appearance of Lika sets off a convolution of unrequited love, jealousy and scandal that lasts for seven years. If the famously unattainable writer has lost his heart to Lika as everyone claims, why does he undertake a life-threatening voyage to Sakhalin Island? And what will happen to Masha if she is demoted from “woman of the house” to “spinster sister”? While Antosha and Lika push and pull, Masha falls in love herself—with a man and with a mongoose—only to have her dreams crushed twice. From her own heartbreak Masha comes to recognize the harm that she has done to her friends by encouraging their involvement with Antosha, but it is too late for Lika, who will both sacrifice herself for love and be immortalized as the model for Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.

A Russian Sister offers a clever commentary on the role of women as prey for male needs and inspiration, a role they continue to play today. At the same time the novel is a plea for sisterhood, both familial and friendly. Chekhov’s The Seagull changed the theatre. A Russian Sister gives the reader a glimpse behind the curtain to the fascinating real-life people who inspired it and the tragedy that followed its premiere.

October 1, 2020
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