A smart, mysterious and heartbreaking novel centred on two sets of sisters whose lives are braided together when tragedy changes them forever. From the award-winning author of The Golden Mean.
Saskia and Jenny are twins who are alike only in appearance. Saskia is a hard-working grad student whose interests are solely academic, while Jenny, an interior designer, is glamourous, thrill-seeking, capricious and narcissistic. Still, when Jenny is severely injured in an accident, Saskia puts her life on hold to be with her sister.
Sara and Mattie are sisters with a difficult relationship. Mattie, the younger sister, is affectionate, curious and intellectually disabled. As soon as Sara is able, she leaves home, in pursuit of a life of the mind and the body: she loves nothing more than fine wines, sensual perfumes, and expensive clothing. But when their mother dies, Sara inherits the duty of caring for her sister. Arriving at the house one day, she finds out that Mattie has married Robert, her wealthy mother's handyman. Though Mattie seems happy, Sara cannot let this go, forcing the annulment of the marriage and the banishment of Robert. With him out of the picture, though, she has no choice but to become her sister's keeper, sacrificing her own happiness and Mattie's too. When Robert turns up again, another tragedy happens. The waves from these events eventually engulf Sara and Saskia, sisters in mourning, in a quest for revenge.
Consent is a startling, moving, thought-provoking novel on the complexities of familial duty and on how love can become entangled with guilt, resentment and regret.
About the author
Annabel Lyon is the author of two books of adult fiction, Oxygen and The Best Thing For You. All-Season Edie is her first work for children. She lives in New Westminster, British Columbia, with her husband and two children.
- Long-listed, Women's Prize for Fiction
- Short-listed, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Long-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: Consent (by (author) Annabel Lyon)
At the funeral, Mattie and Sara held hands. They accepted condolences together with a grave grace. Many of the mourners told them they had never seemed more alike, or like their mother. Afterwards they hosted a reception at the house, Sara offering drinks and Mattie methodically approaching each guest with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, vegetables frilled with cream cheese that she herself had piped.
After their guests had left and they had tidied the house, Sara asked Mattie if she would like to watch one of her movies.
“Will you watch with me?” Mattie asked.
It was dusk. Sara stood by the arm of the sofa, watching the men and women on the screen sing and dance in their flounced dresses and fancy pants. Every night for the past week she had stayed in her old room, listening to Mattie cry herself to sleep. Sara wanted wine. She wanted salmon sashimi. She wanted her laptop on her lap—her work—in her own chair in her own living room, with her own view into the lit, stacked living rooms of the high-rise across the street and the other single lives being profitably led there. She would have to sell the house, soon, and find Mattie somewhere to live. A group home, with staff to care for her, and friends who liked the same things she did.
“You’re hovering,” Mattie said. “You’re making me nervous.” This was something their mother used to say.
Sara perched on the edge of the sofa.
Sara stood up. “Will you be all right on your own tonight?”
The musical number concluded with the entire cast striking an exuberant pose. Then everyone relaxed and the dialogue resumed as though it had never stopped. Mattie turned away from the television and met Sara’s eyes with a bleak look in which neither intelligence nor the lack of it had a place.
Robert was the handyman. He did odd jobs around the neighbourhood: replaced the furnace filter, unstopped the antique upstairs toilet, cleaned the gutters, put up shelves. When Sara had helped her mother with the household accounts at the end of every month, there had always been some little sum for Robert, nothing she had ever questioned. Now her mother was gone less than a month and Mattie had phoned to say she and Robert were married.
“No, Mattie,” Sara had said. “You’re not married.”
Mattie had invited her for supper, to come see.
You are unkind, their mother had told Sara, not long before her heart attack. I am not trying to smother you. You would have your own rooms here, your own office, everything you could want. You can even have your meals on a tray when you are busy with your work. You know what is coming as well as I do. Why do you fight it?
As Sara parked her car in front of the big old house, she recalled the only time she had met Robert, the previous spring. She had been getting out of the car just as she was now when he had come around the side of the house with a mangled squirrel on a shovel.
“Sara Landow.” She stepped onto the lawn, extending her hand. He set the shovel down and they had shook, both of them stronggripped, wary. He was her age, late-thirties, with ginger hair cropped close to his skull, thin lips, pale blue eyes. She intuited a dark, bitter sense of humour, and a matching strain of intelligence.
“Ms. Landow.” He nodded. “The older sister, the professor.”
She suffered his clear, pale-eyed look, conscious of her silk shirt, suede skirt, wool coat, French perfume, Italian leather boots. She wondered what else he knew: about her failure to marry; about her work, and the long, steady ascent of her career; about her ongoing refusal to move “home” and help with Mattie’s care. He had not offered his own name. He explained about the squirrel, that Mattie and Mrs. Landow had found it that morning on the back deck, blood everywhere, and called him in a bit of a tizzy. His word. A cat had got it, he thought. A coyote wouldn’t have left so much behind. She watched him add it to the curbside trash can. “Now for the blood,” he said, and for the next hour or so, while she drank tea with her family and received a fuller recapitulation of the discovery of the poor, poor squirrel, she was aware of him whistling and scrubbing the back deck, occasionally stopping to sip from the mug Mattie had carefully carried out to him. When he was done he rapped on the kitchen window and waved to let them know he was leaving. The deck—Sara had checked—was spotless.
Now it was November. She parked next to five clear plastic bags of leaves, and when she got out of the car smelled smoke in the air, pleasantly. Then she noticed it was coming from the Landow chimney.
“Mattie!” She ran through the front door. She could see her sister squatting on her heels in front of the hearth, firelight dancing on her face. “Mattie, get back.”
Mattie looked up at her, astonished.
“You must never—”
Robert came through from the kitchen in sock feet, holding a drink. “Sara. Don’t worry about the chimney, I had it swept last week. Dinner won’t be long. We made roast beef to celebrate, didn’t we, Mattie-Battie? Roast beef?”
Mattie stood up and put her arm around his waist. He kissed her hair and looked back at Sara, waiting to see what she would do.
“She showed me the marriage licence,” Sara told the lawyer the next day.
Mattie was fine by herself at night and could do simple meals and baking, tea and toast, soup from a can, grilled cheese, salad, pudding, cookies even. She had her bus pass. During the day she had her job at the workshop and her crafts at the drop-in centre. At night she watched movies and talked with her workshop friends on the phone. Sara usually called her once or twice each day to make sure she was all right, and visited three or four times a week to help with cleaning and shopping, and to keep her company now that their mother was no longer there. Mattie couldn’t drive a car or concentrate on a book and she needed help with bigger sums of money, but in a short interaction with her you would not necessarily know these things. She was sweet and friendly and wore expensive nice clothes chosen by Sara and their mother.
Robert, though, she told the lawyer, would have known.
Mattie Landow had become Martha Dwyer. She had done it last week, while Sara had been at a three-day conference in Seattle.
The lawyer, a woman her own age, asked what kind of conference it was.
“Medical ethics,” Sara said. “I’m an ethicist.”
The lawyer asked if Sara or her mother had ever had Mattie declared legally incompetent.
“No. We would have had to go through a judge. We thought it would be humiliating for her. She can do so many things. We didn’t see any reason to define her by what she couldn’t do.”
Sara explained that she had got Mattie on a wait-list for assisted living and was hopeful she’d get a place early in the new year. After that, she was planning to sell the house and use some of the money to take Mattie somewhere extra nice for vacation. California, maybe. Mattie would enjoy Universal Studios.
The lawyer would later tell her Robert Dwyer had a petty criminal record going back to juvie. Shoplifting, DUI, bad cheques, marijuana, like that. She explained that if Sara had her sister declared incompetent they could get the marriage annulled. Criminal charges were another matter.
“You mean fraud, theft?” Sara was thinking of her mother’s assets. Mattie had her own bank account, enough for groceries and DVDs while their mother was ill, which she could more or less manage on her own, but the larger financial picture—investments and property taxes and so on—Sara handled. She was pretty sure everything was still all right there.
“I mean assault,” the lawyer said.
After dinner Robert had taken her aside. He had said he knew the situation was a shock, and if it helped ease her mind he would be happy to leave the sisters alone and return in the morning. Mattie’s face had fallen when they had told her Robert had to be away overnight.
“Where does he sleep?” Sara had asked when he was gone and she had locked all the doors and windows behind him. Mattie had blushed and laughed and hidden her face in her hands. Sara had never seen her so happy, so—that unavoidable word—radiant.
“Sexual assault,” the lawyer said.
“You cannot love her,” Sara said.
She sat with her sister’s husband in her mother’s kitchen. Mattie was watching a Danny Kaye movie a couple of rooms away. They could hear the regular, inarticulate burble of voices and the odd burst of music when Mattie boosted the volume for a song she liked.
“No,” Robert said. “I won’t pretend. But I like her a lot, and she’s fond of me. We get along better than most couples, I’ll guarantee you that. I don’t mind how she is.”
Sara said nothing. Those eyes again, pale and canny. Intelligence like an intimacy between them.
“I’m going to guess you’ve been a busy girl,” Robert said. “I’m going to guess you’ve found out a few things about me. That’s fine. Clean and straight for the last eighteen months—that’s on my record too—but I’m guessing that’s not foremost in your mind right now. That’s fine. It’s good to get these things out in the open. Mattie knows what kind of person I am, I’ve told her as much as she can understand. If it doesn’t bother her, I’m going to suggest it shouldn’t bother you.”
“I could have brought the police with me today. That would have been my right. It was recommended to me, in fact.”
“Jesus.” He shook his head. “Why?”
“Why? Because she has the capacity of a child. She can’t consent to any of this, not legally. Not to marriage. Not to—”
Mattie came into the kitchen and asked if anyone else wanted juice.
“Just for you, I think, Mattie-Battie,” Robert said. “Good movie?”
“It’s my favourite. Next time you have to watch with me.”
“You know I will.”
“I know,” Mattie said.
When she was gone, Robert said, “You think I raped her? You think I’m a violent man? Look around. Do you see a mess in this house? Do you see anything missing, anything out of place? I cleaned the toilets this morning. I raked the lawn, I made the beds. In a little while I’m going to start dinner. I’ve helped Mattie comb her hair and cut her toenails. Clean and straight, it’s all clean and straight.”
Sara told him about the possibility of an annulment and a restraining order.
“You think I should get a lawyer, Sara? Is that what you would do, if you were me?” He seemed genuinely to want to know.
Sara shook her head, then nodded.
“Can you recommend someone?”
She said nothing.
“Sure you can. I’m sure you know more than one lawyer. I’m sure that’s the kind of friends you have. I’m sure you get together with your lady lawyer friends for cappuccinos.”
Lattes, Sara thought.
“All right. I’m not going to make fun of you. I’m not stupid, though. I want you to know that.”
“No, you’re not stupid. Mattie’s the stupid one.”
He leaned back in his chair. “That’s an ugly way to talk.”
From the TV room they heard Mattie laugh.
“Can I tell you a little bit about myself, Sara? Can I? You’ve established some things already in your mind, I can see that. That I have a criminal record. That I waited to get married until you were out of town. That I’m living here in this beautiful house and maybe that’s fouling it for you. Am I warm?”
“It’s not the house.”
“All right! It’s not the house. Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me, Sara, tell me what it is. Let’s talk about it and see if we can work it out. I can tell you I didn’t go to university. Is that it? Do you hate me because I watch the Discovery Channel?”
“My first wife had a master’s in social work. I have a sister in the Kootenays and two nieces. Information, information. What else can I give you? I have high blood pressure. I take pills for it. When I was a kid I had a cat named Leo and a dog named Booker. My trade is carpentry. My favourite wood is cedar. I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had because I can’t stand being told what to do. My bosses were always genuinely regretful. They knew my work was good but they didn’t like the way I talked back and made them look bad in front of the crew. That’s not trouble, that’s self-respect. Drinking is what gets me in trouble, and I don’t drink anymore. I’ve been to jail three times, the longest time for five months. I’ve had seven girlfriends and eleven cars. But I don’t have to fight with Mattie, to prove myself to her every minute, like I’m doing with you now. That’s why I want to be with her. What else?”
“Mattie’s girlfriend number eight?”
“Number seven. Wife number two. What else?”
“The fact that there is an outstanding warrant for your arrest in Saskatoon?” Sara said.
He took a breath, then let it out. Sara held hers. “I borrowed that car from its rightful owner. It was a legitimate misunderstanding but she turned vindictive for no reason. I don’t want to go to jail again. I don’t deserve to.”
Sara allowed herself no expression.
“You would, wouldn’t you? I mean, you really would. I can see that. All right. I respect that, I do. You fight hard and you win.”
She whispered, “Please leave.”
He went upstairs. She knew this was the dangerous time, the time when smashing sounds might begin. A few minutes later he came back down with a backpack. “Don’t be scared,” he said, when he saw her face.
He went into the TV room and a moment or two later came back, pursued by Mattie in tears.
“I hate you!” she told Sara.
“No, Mattie,” Robert said, “you don’t.”
Mattie had cried for days, had blamed Sara no matter how many times Sara tried to explain. Their appearance before the judge, Mattie prettily dressed and uncomprehending, was a gentle horror: everyone so understanding, so respectful of Mattie’s dignity. The judge had spoken earnestly to Mattie, and Mattie had liked him, Sara could see. Mattie had become confused by her own emotions— loving Robert, loving Sara, loving the earnest judge with the funny big nose—and when they asked her if she wanted to say anything she had gotten tangled in her own thoughts, and blushed and shaken her head. So easy, Sara had thought, hating herself then.
Thus came the end of the privacy Sara had sought so fiercely and protected for so long. She sold the house—too big, too lavender-smelling—and moved Mattie into the second bedroom in her West End apartment, which had been her office. She would work from now on at a small desk in the hall. Mattie learned new bus routes, learned to manoeuvre in Sara’s tiny galley kitchen, learned to operate the coin laundry machines in the basement, learned to manage two house keys—for the building, for the apartment door—instead of just one.
Sara learned more about Robert in the months after he had left their lives forever. She realized he had spent a lot of time with Mattie even before the marriage, enough to have remoulded Mattie to his own shape. He had been a good cook. “Too soft,” Mattie said now of Sara’s indifferently stir-fried vegetables, and she asked more than once when Sara was going to bake some muffins or roast a chicken. Robert had been a tidy man, and thrifty. Mattie counted the money in her beaded wallet every night now before she went to bed, and when she couldn’t afford some treat she wanted, she said, “Never mind,” instead of begging from Sara. She folded her laundry now and put it away, packing it into the drawers of her new, smaller dresser with thoughtful intensity, like she was packing for a sea voyage. Sara learned that Robert had been a man who liked to touch, casually, affectionately: a pat on the back, a kiss on the head, a head on her shoulder during the TV news on the sofa before bed. There was no one else from whom her sister could have learned this behaviour. There had never been anyone else at all.
Sara learned how Robert had been in bed. Late every night, after Sara had turned her light out—long after Mattie had closed her own door—Sara would feel her sister slip into her room, slip under the covers beside her, and press her body against Sara’s until Sara put her arms around her. They would lie this way for a long time, until Mattie turned away, backing herself against Sara so that Sara would hold her that way, and then Mattie would sigh and busy her hands between her own legs. The doctor had assured Sara weeks ago that Mattie was healthy and her hymen intact. “You,” Mattie would mumble after she was done, but Sara would only hold her. Every night after Mattie had fallen asleep Sara would promise herself to put an end to these intrusions: a gentle but firm talk, a lock on the door, a sharp, unequivocal word in the night.
But night rolled into day rolled into night and she said nothing, did nothing. She had taken the sun and the moon from Mattie, as the old words went; they would not come again. Skin on skin, and not to be alone: didn’t she owe her this, at least, if her own love was true?
Longlisted for the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize
One of CBC's "Best Canadian Fiction of 2020"
A Quill & Quire Book of the Year
One of the Globe and Mail's "Globe 100: Our Favourite Books of 2020"
“This tightly and beautifully written novel folds time and longing into every sentence and every page. It takes risks with form to reveal a profoundly human story, and it leaves us with an unexpected sensation: that this is real life—it contains all kinds of deep and difficult loves, and not all of us can survive them. It’s a brave, even dangerous book and so compelling that I read it from cover to cover over the course of one night.”
—Preti Taneja, author of We That Are Young
“Mesmerizing . . . An intense, intimate novel of love, grief, and murder [with] a deliciously dark conclusion . . . Perfectly captures the odd mix of love and resentment faced by caregivers.”
“[A] short, intense, and coruscating book. . . . [Lyon] packs more into her sentences than most writers working today and constructs a narrative that closes on the reader like a mousetrap. And like any good mousetrap, by the time its victim realizes they’ve stumbled, it’s too late.”
—Quill & Quire
“A genuinely surprising read, rooted in a keen, if unsettling, understanding of human nature . . . Consent defies conventional narrative, embracing instead a sense of emotional time . . . This is, after all, how we think and feel, how families and relationships develop and age, how we grow. Life, Lyon shows, isn’t a straight line.”
—Robert J. Wiersema, Toronto Star
“[A]n exuberant and weirdly wonderful novel that absolutely commits to its feverish tale of damaged brains, storied couture dresses, alcoholism, mortality, rare French perfumes, tempestuous sisterhood and cold-blooded retaliation. . . . Brimming with smart, sharp writing and wholly unpredictable turns from one chapter to the next, now and then in fact its cockeyed vision brings to mind Hitchcock and Lynch at their quirky, misanthropic finest. . . . As attractive as the sharp turns and unsettling comedy are, Lyon’s affection for her leading ladies and acceptance (even celebration) of them as they are supplies the novel with irresistible charm.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“Combining ethical dilemmas with material indulgence, Consent is a heady, intoxicating blend. In slick and sensual prose, Lyon challenges what it means to be a sister, a carer, an addict, an enabler and maybe even a murderer.”
—Ruth Gilligan, The Butchers’ Blessing
“Lyon traces the entanglements of sisterhood that can’t be separated from each identity . . . The novel builds to a climax that weaves together each plotline, leaving room for surprising moments of insight.”
—Rudrapriya Rathore, Canadian Notes and Queries
“So very crazily enjoyable and pleasingly savage . . . An exuberant and weirdly wonderful novel . . . Brimming with smart, sharp writing and wholly unpredictable turns from one chapter to the next . . . Brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch at their quirky, misanthropic finest . . . Lyon’s affection for her leading ladies and acceptance (even celebration) of them as they are supplies the novel with irresistible charm.”
—Brett Josef Grubisic, Beacon Herald (Stratford)
“Blistering . . . The most truthful exploration of sisterhood I have enjoyed since Fleabag.”
—Kate Saunders, The Times (London)
“I raced through this gripping read about sisters, guilt, grief, and revenge . . . Full of twists . . . I couldn’t put it down.”
—Sarah Lawrence, Daily Mail
“Beyond its intoxicating cover, this novel captivates in plot too.”
—Seija Rankin, Entertainment Weekly
“So, so clever and so concise yet just goes into the most profound issues in such depth.”
—Vick Hope, Women’s Prize for Fiction Judge 2021