“I can’t explain why I did it”, begins the narrator of Linda Olsson‘s novel, A Sister in My House. Two sisters, Maria and Emma, were semi-estranged up until their mother’s funeral. Maria impulsively invites Emma to visit her seaside home in Spain. After living in solitude, Maria struggles with her sister’s presence because it forces Maria to revisit their shared traumas. Olsson offers a profound meditation on shared and individual human experiences. She develops the realization that despite one’s reclusiveness, individuals are connected to a greater community. Whereas Maria never can fully articulate ‘why she did it’, inviting her sister provoked both women to rekindle a relationship that moves them away from pain and towards love and compassion.
The sisters realize they never fundamentally knew each other and what they assumed was wildly inaccurate. Maria is shocked when she realizes Emma’s seemingly picture-perfect life as a stay-at-home mother, rearing two children in a privileged community, is a facade. Emma is contending with a divorce while helplessly watching her daughter struggle with an eating disorder. Likewise, Maria, who appears independent and self-supporting, was deeply attached to her deceased partner Maya. In the wake of Maya’s untimely death, Maria relies on maintaining the life she built with Maya despite enduring the loneliness. This is Maria’s struggle and an outward contradiction to Emma’s image of her sister. Similarly, Emma’s chain-smoking and admittance that she’s “drifted along aimlessly” (50) requires Maria to authentically see her sister and realize her objections and self-projection.
Olsson accurately describes the anxiety and bitterness associated with sharing a personal space. When Emma first arrives, Maria expresses trepidation about Emma occupying the space in which she, Maria, relied upon to develop her own identity. For Maria, it was this Spanish house and city that allowed her to reconstruct her identity in the wake of her mother’s, sister’s and partner’s deaths. When Emma arrives, Maria “felt a stab of that same stinginess at having to share what I considered mine” (18). Maria’s connections to places reflect her development of the safe spaces she needs to emotionally rebuild. Emma’s appearance halts progression because it forces Maria to contend with their histories. Emma personifies the past that Maria wants to avoid yet also invited into her home.
Olsson frequently utilizes places and locations to embody the character’s identity construction, a technique akin to Gothic literature’s use of architecture and spaces to infuse the writing and character development. Olsson also relies on descriptions of spaces to propel her narrative while directly impacting the characters and their relationships. While touring the Spanish village, Maria takes Emma to visit a local cathedral that fills Maria with a “kind of peace… often I am the only person inside, and nothing disturbs me” (43). As a contrast, Emma contends she doesn’t like churches because “those dark spaces make me feel utterly forlorn” (45). Here Olsson uses the architecture and location to develop her characters’ individualities. Ultimately, she is exhibiting the two sister’s disconnect and the path they need to traverse to renew their relationship.
A Sister in My House successfully creates an ambiance of discomfort. As Emma and Maria attempt to bridge their estrangement, the moments when they are more similar to strangers than sisters are stark and chilling. At times, A Sister in My House is reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams play, as Olsson’s focus on dialogue gives the characters’ a pathway to process their individual psychologies and their dysfunctional lives. Emma and Maria spend a large part of their time together discussing their mother. She is Williams’ quintessential narcissistic matriarch whose self-absorption created a toxic environment for her children. It is this deconstruction of their traumas, experienced as both individuals and as a family, that allow them to more fully see and understand each other.
Olsson’s use of minimalist prose allows the readers to fully engage with Maria’s and Emma’s emotional revamping. Yet their aloofness and dispassion, partially due to the sparse writing, creates an unsympathetic response towards the characters. As Emma and Maria recap their histories, their responses are at times unbelievably heartless. More so, Emma and Maria never take responsibility for their actions and reactions; rather, they surmise “nothing seems to be anybody’s fault when you look back. It’s as if everything just aimlessly happened” (51). Their airing of grievances is enough for the two sisters to move forward. But how can one show any type of growth without taking any responsibility for their actions? Their indifference does not align with the emotional intimacy they strive to achieve.
A Sister in My House convey a powerful message to readers. Olsson’s characters demonstrate that we might absolutely believe we understand the person in front of us, but oftentimes it takes confronting a history of trauma, fear, and the acceptance of self-awareness to truly understand their point of view. Even then, we might not ever know their true selves.