My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus.
My Sister Chaos, by Lara Fergus. Spinifex Press (2011), 204 pages. Reprint.
MY FAVORITE BOOK FOR 2016
A brilliant, imaginative novel about a traumatized woman in exile who obsessively maps her own house and her sister who brings chaos into the dwelling.
Lara Fergus is an Australian writer with long and varied experiences writing, dancing, and working for human rights organizations as a researcher and writer. She now is involved in projects to prevent violence against women. Her novel reveals just how deeply she understands the impact of trauma on women. Her writing has a fluid and universal quality that pulls readers into her character’s struggle to find order and safety.
Neither the characters nor the countries involved are named in this novel. The story centers on and is sometimes narrated by a woman who is a mapmaker, frantically seeking to pin down and map her own home and its contents. She and her twin sister are refugees, fleeing a war that has destroyed their homeland and their lives. Both have been raped and abused, and the sister has lost the woman she loves. Chapters describing what had happened to them during the war parallel the narratives of what is happening in the book’s present. The two have been separated and her sister’s arrival deeply affects the mapmaker by introducing uncertainties into her carefully mapped house. Fergus exposes us to the sense of danger the sister brings to the mapmaker while making clear that the danger is not an objective reality. Yet the discovery that the house has a hidden, unmapped basement is enough to nudge the mapmaker into extreme action.
As Fergus makes clear, the story is more than an account of refugees. Her book focuses on the particular situation of women harmed and caught in their own need for order, an all too common reality today. By drawing us into their story she taps into the struggle between order and chaos within each of us. Fergus succeeds in bringing her character’s thoughts and feelings into the open without sacrificing clarity and order in the narrative. The story she tells is horrid, but she tells it with a light hand, allowing us distance from the mapmaker and from our own despair. We can see humor as well as the pain. With all the trauma in the world today, a writer like Fergus can help us all understand the experiences of refugees and others caught in PTSD. By witnessing them, perhaps we all can find a path forward.
Not all readers will respond well to My Sister Chaos, but that does not detract from the power it can display. I believe it is a book to be widely read and discussed. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
This is another example of the wonderfully radical publications from Spinifex Press. Check out their other books.