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Beverly Jensen
Beverly Jensen

Review: Fiction

Sisters doing it for each other Add to ...

I always longed for a sister. She would be my best friend forever, soulmate, sidekick and protector; we'd share a telepathic bond. A sister can be a key to one's identity, both a shadow-self and one's opposite, a kind of double.

In her posthumously published debut, Beverly Jensen focuses on the lives of two richly layered and complex sisters who burrow into the reader's heart as sharply as the thistles that pierce the girls' bare feet on their woodland walks.

We meet Idella and Avis Hillock in 1916 in remote Bay Chaleur, New Brunswick. Their beloved mother is about to give birth to a fourth child that the family can barely afford. As seven-year-old Idella slips onto the plank bench behind the stove to keep vigil, her mother dies.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen, Viking, 307 pages, $32.50

Jensen hews to Idella's child-like perspective during this harrowing scene, and her loss is wrenchingly visceral. The baby girl is farmed out to a relative - along with the cow, because the newborn will need milk - while the girls and their brother remain with their harsh, heart-broken father, who stands "tall and straight as a pitchfork."

Many of Jensen's strengths are evident in Gone, the stunning opener to The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, a novel in stories. Thanks to her background in theatre, the dialogue - raw, witty - sings rather than reads.

Jensen even manages a bit of humour amid tragedy. A neighbour chides Idella's father: "Jesus, Bill, fourth time around and you're still useless." He fires back: "I get things started pretty good." Jensen knows how to pace a scene, and to utilize fresh images to dramatize both the inner and outer landscapes of her characters.

The barren, lonely beauty of the windy New Brunswick cliffs are vividly evoked in all of their sights, sounds and smells. Before her mother's death, Idella sees the morning fog through her eyes:

"It'd swirl around your feet like smoke. Mother said it was like walking through the clouds, only better, because it smelled of the sea."

After her mother is gone, that same fog seeps from outside to inside: "Everything was far-off sounding, as though the fog had come into the house and filled it up."

The family scrabbles - or as Idella sees it, scrapes - for survival. She thinks of all the scraping she does: dishes, floors, potatoes, fish guts. After her mother dies, even her eyelashes scrape her blanket before she can fall into "a long and tangled sleep."

In Gone, we see the seeds of each sister's character take shape. Idella is grave and good, contained and careful, a keen observer. Little sister Avis is wild and sassy, often enacting the emotions for both girls with her bright, vivid physicality and her outspoken words.

At the end of Gone, we see Avis "running like a wild creature" after her mother's casket, hair dishevelled and her dress pulled up, scattering the mayflowers both sisters had gathered in the woods as a surprise for their mother. Meanwhile, Idella watches from a window, forehead pressed to cold glass. We will worry about both of them throughout their lives, from girls to women and on into old age.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay follows Idella and Avis over a span of 71 years, up to 1987. Jensen's best stories are freestanding, but like the beautifully adorned squares of a patchwork quilt, they piece together into an enveloping whole; unlike in a traditional novel, the reader must sew the threads of connection.

Pomme de Terre - in which a poor French-Canadian girl comes to work for the Hillocks as a housekeeper, catching the eye of both father and son while sparking both sisters' ire and longing - as well as Wake - a darkly humorous story in which the sisters shepherd their father's body to his funeral, with many mishaps along the way - are standouts.

Unfortunately, some of the monologues and short pieces in the book read like splices of life, or vignettes, and feel unfinished. In general, the stories from Idella's and Avis's girlhood possess considerably more power than the diffuse and desultory tales from their lives as women in Boston and Maine.

Sadly, Jensen's life was cut short before she had the chance to submit her work for publication, so it's likely she might have further developed the weaker sections. Nonetheless, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay possesses considerable riches, and one hopes it will find the audience it deserves.

Ami Sands Brodoff's latest novel, The White Space Between, was winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

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