Life

‘What would it be like to be you?’

Author Barbara Gowdy's book 'Little Sister' transports a woman into another body.

Little Sister is author Barbara Gowdy’s first novel in a decade. She wrote it while suffering from debilitating back pain, lying down in bed using a reclining chair for her laptop.

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Little Sister is author Barbara Gowdy’s first novel in a decade. She wrote it while suffering from debilitating back pain, lying down in bed using a reclining chair for her laptop.

Last fall, after Barbara Gowdy discovered a lump in her breast, her younger sister Mary offered to drive her to Toronto’s Prince Margaret Hospital for a series of tests. As Gowdy was filling out forms, Mary suddenly fell to the floor in a seizure, caused by a massive brain haemorrhage.

If Mary hadn’t been in that hospital room at that exact moment, feet away from an oxygen tank and doctors to rush her into surgery, she would not have survived. Gowdy — now in remission after radiation and a lumpectomy — says it was her cancer that saved her sister’s life.

Later that fateful day, after undergoing a core biopsy and being reassured that her sister was doing well in another hospital, an exhausted Gowdy came home to a box sitting on her Cabbagetown front porch. The box was labelled “Little Sister,” and for a shocking moment the author forgot that was the title of her much-anticipated new novel, her first publication in a decade.

It would be understandable if Gowdy wrote about the cruel limitations of the human body. On top of the breast cancer, she has suffered 14 years from a mysteriously debilitating chronic back pain that limits her mobility. Most of Little Sister was written lying down in bed using a reclining tray for her laptop, while undergoing a litany of unsuccessful drug therapies that did little more than make her foggy and depressed. But Gowdy’s curiosity about our inner lives runs deeper than skin and bones. Since she can remember, she has asked the fundamental question: “What would it be like to be you?”

Little Sister, which takes place over a week, follows Rose, a 30-something woman who lives a mundane existence running a repertory theatre with her mother, who suffers from progressive dementia. When a series of freak lightening storms hit the city, Rose’s migraine-like symptoms inexplicably transport her inside the body of a stranger named Harriet, who is having an affair with a married co-worker.

This erotic experience is a far cry from the dullness of Rose’s own relationship with Victor, an older, serious-minded meteorologist. No wonder Rose becomes almost physically obsessed to re-enter Harriet, who may also have an otherworldly connection to her deceased younger sister.

Gowdy suggests that her ongoing existential preoccupation with how others see the world may be connected with some discomfort she has with her own self. “I’m always curious about how people cope. It seems very touching to me,” she says. “There’s that saying, ‘Walk a mile in my shoes,’ but I was thinking, ‘Walk a mile in my body, spend an hour in my mind.’”

In writing Harriet, who is described as “kinetic” and the opposite of staid Rose, Gowdy purposely held back on exposing the character’s thoughts. She wanted the book’s strange occurrences to remain as much a mystery to readers as they are to Rose, and to avoid a re-tread of the 1999 Spike Jonze movie Being John Malkovich. “I wanted her to inhabit the body more. It wasn’t just ‘what it would be like being you,’ and ending there, it’s ‘what is it like to be you and then come back to me,’” she says.  

Over her lauded career and eight books, Gowdy has been dubbed a risk-taker in Canadian literature, whether it’s for exploring the inner worlds of elephants in the Giller Prize-nominated White Bone or for her empathetic portrayal of a necrophiliac in the 1992 story collection We So Seldom Look on Love. But she doesn’t necessarily buy that risk-taking label. Gowdy suggests perhaps it’s because she never writes the same book twice: she inhabits her characters, and then moves on.

“Once I’m done with a certain voice or point or view, I’m really done,” she says.

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