Little Sister (Vintage 2012) by Julian Novitz
Little Sister is not a recent release but I saw it at the library and because I don’t know a great deal about Novitz , I thought I would check it out. And part of the mission of this blog is for me to get around to reading the things I should have read. Novitz has previously published a short story collection, My Real Life and Other Stories (2004), and a novel Holocaust Tours (2006). He doesn’t appear to be around the NZ literary scene lately, his NZ Book Council profile doesn’t even list his latest novel. Little Sister revolves around Shane, Will and Eileen who attend High School together and form an intense friendship. The novel gives each friend a turn at relating their perspective about their relationship, and about events that revolve around and lead up to the death of Eileen’s father.
There are lots of literary allusions in the book. Shane is interested in the Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur that his teacher, Mr N, talks about in English class, in particular Arthur and his sword Excalibur. The sword represents a masculine power while the sheath represents the feminine: “The sexual imagery, Mr N said, should not be lost on us here.” Such is Shane’s enthusiasm for all things medieval that Shane joins Eileen at Medieval Faires, and even buys himself a replica sword. Initially, Shane just keeps the sword in his room, then he starts posing with it in front of the mirror, and then he starts to take it out with him. Eventually, he loses the sword’s sheath as his relationship with Eileen intensifies.
While Shane enjoys medieval literature, Will tells Eileen that he wants to be a writer when he leaves school, though it’s a lie, he hasn’t written a thing except school exercises but he finds some satisfaction in the identification as a writer. Will’s narrative takes place in a police cell where he is waiting to tell his side of the story to the detectives. Will imagines himself in a cop/detective story as he rehearses his story in his head.
Eileen, as seen through Shane and Will’s eyes, is complicated. She was initially dating Will but then moves onto Shane while insisting that the three of them still remain friends and hang out at Will’s flat in town. Eileen seems manipulative, and is a girl that other girls don’t like. She relates a history of sexual abuse, and there are questions as to whether she is fabricating other elements of her life, such as the fact that she has a younger sister that neither Will nor Shane have ever seen.
Readers hear Eileen’s perspective ten years after high school when she is living in Melbourne and teaching theatre classes. At the university a girl is following Eileen and someone who refers to herself as Eileen’s sister is calling her flat. The essence of the novel is for the reader to decide whether Eileen’s sister exists, and whether Eileen is a victim or femme fatale in her father’s death. At one point Eileen discusses her boyfriend’s detective novels, saying that his female characters are, “all absent somehow. Either they’re physically absent, like the detective’s ex-wife or the damsel’s-in-distress, or they’re emotionally absent, like the ruthless femmes fatales you wheel out as plot devices, always with their scheming plans but no internal lives. Absent women all the time." It is up to readers to decide whether and/or how Eileen is absent in the novel.
The narrative is a mystery, of sorts, even though we know who did it early on in the book. This relates to another literary reference in the novel. Eileen is fixated with Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and notes that there “is no mystery to the murder in the cathedral: it is performed right there, in front of our eyes, on the stage.” In Eliot’s play Thomas Becket, a priest, is willing to die for his faith. Becket is presented with four tempters who question whether he wants to die for his faith or whether he desires to become a martyr. When the priest has been killed by the four knights, they each come forward and present their justifications for the killing. Novitz has followed Eliot’s structure for his novel in presenting four justifications for Eileen’s dad’s death (Mr N gets the last word). Eliot’s play calls on the audience to act as detectives, as readers of Novitz’s novel are, and the characters are portrayed through their individual moral crises.
I initially thought that perhaps there are just too many literary references in Novitz’s novel, but the inclusions are all explained within the text so I didn’t feel like an outsider trying to grapple with specialist knowledge about medieval literature, or Eliot. And, a lot of the action does take place in an English class so the inclusion does make sense. The novel successfully portrays the intensity of friendships that can form in high school, and how those relationships affect the rest of your life.