The Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj

Andrea Gunraj is the author of The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha (2009, Knopf Canada), her first novel. Her follow-up novel The Lost Sister (2019, Vagrant Press) is actually two stories that Ms. Gunraj has cleverly interleaved and zipped up into one considerable read so that we have two stories, both with a “lost sister.”

“A girl with a jealous sister? Isn’t that how it’s always been?”

We begin with the present-day story (actually 1998) of two sisters, Diana and Alisha, 15 and 13 respectively, the daughters of Donald and Beatrice Sookermany, immigrants from Guyana living in the Jane-Finch area of Toronto. For reasons unknown to us at the outset, Alisha had simply wanted to get her older sister in trouble by making her parents think that Diana ‘deserted’ her at the mall. In order to do this, she takes her time going home, arriving there after 10:00 pm. It is then she finds out that Diana never came home.

The second story takes place decades back in Nova Scotia of the late 1940s when it was a common practice of child protection services to remove children from their parent(s) and put them in facilities, it was different for black children. They were taken to the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, wherein racially motivated underfunding relegates the children to be workers in the home and in the field, experience punishing physical and sexual abuses and more. Furthermore, they were not given much of an education. Typically, the children were not told as to why they were there and if or when they would ever see their parent again (they would get to leave at age eighteen). This is the case with Paula Benton (seven years old) and her sister Ave (two years old) when they are taken without notice from their mother. Paula is very protective of Ave the entire time they are in the home, but years later out of the home, they become estranged.

For years, both Paula and Alisha have had to live with their grief, each one considering themselves the reason the other sister is “lost.” Daily, Alisha has to watch her parents and her Aunt Julie deal with not knowing what happened to Diana or if she will ever be found, dead or alive. She has to live through her sister’s phantom birthdays, Christmases that are never the same and a memorial to Diana that her mother made, with her high school pictures surrounded by burning candles. Typical of sisters (and brothers too, I would assume) is the competitiveness for a parent’s attention and approval. Diana was considered the “smarter” of the two and always wanted to be a doctor. Alisha lives in her sister’s shadow, and while she is intelligent (as she will soon prove to be), she is not as independently minded as Diana, and now she has to live with feelings of guilt, for she never confessed to anyone (parents, police, friends) about what actually happened that day her and Diana went to the mall, and the man Alisha met there.

She [Diana] didn’t notice the person walking toward her from the other direction, the man with the sunburned nose who I had met at the mall, the loose front of his T-shirt undulating like a flag. He was fixated on the back of her head, focused to a point. The back of Diana’s hair rose in the breeze and bandied about in all directions.

With my sister between us, the man’s gaze shot to me. I saw the hint of a new smile.

A vacuum opened in my brain and an idea swelled in. Who cares about that guy? I thought. I never want to see my sister again. I hope she dies.

I always tried to make my parents happy, always tried to impress my sister and make her care for me. What if I gave up and walked away? What if I wandered the sidewalks, went to my school and stayed out on the playground until the sky turned dark, leaving Princess Dee to explain why I wasn’t with her? She would have to deal with Queen Bea’s [their mother, Beatrice] fury over abandoning me. She would finally be the one everyone was disappointed in.

I turned from Diana and walked away.

Meanwhile, at The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, adorable Ave is fast becoming a favourite with Granny. She keeps her inside the home doing chores rather than working outside in the fields like Paula and the others. This creates some jealousy between the two. When Paula is eighteen and allowed to leave, Granny gives her some news about their mother that Paula wants to be kept from Ave. When Ave is eighteen, Paula goes to the home looking for her, but she is not there. A few years later, they meet at an outdoor cafe in Montreal and Ave is pregnant.

Paula coughed a sour laugh. “You think you’ll be a star, don’t you? You think someone has a place waiting for you. Where? New York, Los Angeles? London? Paris? World tours with a newborn baby! You’ll be the first unwed mother to make a breakthrough!”

Ave’s cheeks blazed red, She was self-conscious, turning side to side to see people watching.

But a throb in Paula’s brain egged her on, just like Granny’s vengeful voice urging her to pummel that boy in the forest. Teach ’em good! She would shatter ribs, because she never did have the ability to soothe the ache she felt in her own bones. “Your appetite for attention. You fancy any horny bastard who shows you the slightest bit of interest, even those snakes and snails back home.” She straightened in her chair with theatric verve. “l hate to break it to you, but men like the one you’re praying for don’t exist.”

“Paula! Keep your damned voice down!”

The balding waiter who had first led them to their table with a nervy, elongated face started weaving through the tables to get to theirs. That some brave soul was going to do something about the problem of Paula and Ave triggered a stir across the patio. The wind picked up, nearly claiming both of their hats.

“You think you’ll become a sensation and the world will welcome you, rags to riches? It doesn’t matter that you can sing. You’re just a rat to them, a smear of brown shit under their heels— “

“Paula!”

“l didn’t teach you to play the fool. don’t know who you are anymore.”

Ave pushed out an angry chortle. “A girl with a jealous sister? Isn’t that how it’s always been?”
Paula laughed back. “Think that way if it makes you feel better. Just don’t look to me when the dream doesn’t come true.”

Eventually, Paula and Alisha cross paths many years later as Paula, now a senior, volunteers in the local library where Alisha’s class is taken to get reading material. A tentative friendship soon forms, and Alisha wonders about the broken relationship between Paula and Ave. Her guilt over Diana compels her to try and get Paula to reconcile with Ave. She doesn’t want Ave to be lost to Paula like Diana is to her.

The Lost Sister is a bleak novel, practically devoid of any sunshine or light. I don’t say this as a criticism, just as my initial impression. Of course, the subject matter is not one that easily lends itself to light reading. Nevertheless, Ms. Gunraj has accomplished an extraordinary feat by taking two people –generations apart –and combined their stories into a narrative that is insightful as it is informative surrounding the untold years of grieving over a lost sibling.

The Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj
Vagrant Press (an imprint of Nimbus Publishing)

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