The Sister, by Paola Kaufmann, is a swift-paced and deceptively easy to read novel that ends up lingering a long time in the mind. It is a delicate reconstruction of the life of Emily Dickinson, and of her afterlife as a controversial, famous poet, told through the eyes of her younger sister, Lavinia. Vinnie’s first person account begins with the discovery of Dickinson’s poems, almost two thousand of them, after her death, but slips quickly back into childhood, to follow a chronological account from that point on. She describes the Dickinsons as a close-knit family, admiring of their stern father and their older brother, Austin; and even if their mother is somewhat distant and cool they move through life in steady union, bonded by love, duty and a strict adherence to routine. The first half of the book depicts a quiet and mostly peaceful early life, broken into only by romances that never came to anything much. Emily Dickinson’s loves by correspondence are beautifully handled in the novel, tied up together neatly in the one chapter so that the emerging pattern of her admiration – intense, distant, literary – can clearly be seen. Equally well done is their comparison to Lavinia’s own romantic disappointments. Lavinia fell in love with Joseph Lyman, was courted by him and promised to him, only when Joseph left on a get-rich trip to the South, he never came back. Eventually, he married someone else instead. Lavinia’s grinding twelve year wait for him starts to open up unexpected light on our narrator. From that point on we begin to understand that spinsterhood is the condition she desires for Emily, as well as for herself, and that the years of quiet isolation together have formed a bond that is unhealthy as well as profoundly loving. Lavinia, the pretty, dramatic, outgoing sister, was owed a life of greater import, of a more startling and eventful narrative, and so as time goes on we watch her shrinking hopes start to transform into a need to live vicariously.
In the second part of the novel drama comes, but in a series of terrible events that the Dickinsons would never have wished for. The clean-cut family allegiances turn complex, resentful, and problematic, and Emily’s strange but fierce desire for isolation starts to provoke repercussions. As the narrative picks up pace and power, so we become aware of Lavinia’s unreliability as a narrator, and this is never more evident that in the final sections where her motivation for publishing her sister’s works is put literally on trial.
I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. The narrative is written with what I can only describe as a very light hand – there is such delicacy in the early stages of the representation; a cobwebby string of language brings the Dickinsons together in a life that looks so patterned and regular but which turns out to be utterly fragile and insecure. As the novel progresses and Lavinia heads towards her own nemesis, so Kaufmann lets go of the restraint and a very different kind of narrator bursts through at the end. But what I felt was so clever about this book is the way that Emily Dickinson is its prime concern and its best kept secret. By the time the story ends, we have lived alongside her, witnessed her daily life, shared her tragedies and wondered at her fate. And yet, as Lavinia herself declares, it feels like we don’t really know her, she remains a shadowy figure whose brilliant poetry sprung bounteous and startling from her death. How could someone as close as a loving sister, even, feel she still knew the woman who turned out to have produced a verse that was different to any before seen in America? And how could that same sister, sadly disappointed in her own uneventful life, not wish to appropriate the glory of Emily for herself by any means available? The clever title points to the ambiguity as to which sister is the focus of the narrative here, and in this way, Emily remains potent but veiled. The enigma of Emily Dickinson is both the frustration of the narrative and its sharpest, most authentic insight.