Only Sisters by Lilian Nattel

The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover no longer holds entirely true: the cover of Lilian Nattel’s fifth novel, Only Sisters, tells us much about her book. A pair of identical, back-to-back robins perch on black tree branches, their black tails overlapping and interlocking against a bright pink background. The ominous shades and V shapes of the branches and locked bird tails are offset by the V sign for victory and the bright colours of the robins’ breasts and rosy background. Hope in the face of despair, fearful symmetries, and overlapping identities fill Nattel’s fiction, as she goes out on a limb with her protagonist, Joan Connor, a palliative care doctor.

“Hope in the face of despair, fearful symmetries, and overlapping identities fill Nattel’s fiction, as she goes out on a limb with her protagonist, Joan Connor, a palliative care doctor.”

            The opening sentence, “I agreed to become my sister during a polar vortex,” introduces sibling identities and climate crisis, domestic and global themes where sisters are more than “only sisters.” While Joan is a doctor who remains in Toronto to take care of her parents, her more exotic sister, Vivien, works as a nurse in Africa. Both sisters belong to a dysfunctional family, like so many other families in the novel. Joan lists her fears: “I also worried about pollution, nuclear war, being too ugly to be loved, everyone in my family dying, the callus on my finger (I thought it was a symptom of yaws, a rare tropical disease), getting a B in math, going blind and how to use tampons.” Hardly the qualifications for a doctor, but perhaps apt for a physician in palliative care, who has to heal herself.

            Nattel cares for her protagonist’s sounds and colours: “My tone was more intense and I had to soften it.” Other characters’ tones range in intensity and become hushed when necessary. After dealing with one of her patients, Eddie Wong, and his intrusive family, Joan reverts to thoughts of her missing sister. Anatomical details turn to sisterly speculation: “There are 37 trillion cells in the human body constantly replicating …. Fat cells renew a few at a time – it takes eight years for a complete changeover. So, when Vivien and I were at the table in that future time, every cell in our bodies would be new. Could we speak, then, of what we’d lost?” From an anatomical vortex to family changeovers, Only Sisters progresses from palliative care to our contemporary pandemic.

            Throughout her narrative, Nattel shifts time frames, changes domestic décor, and alters voices in a vortex of ventriloquism. In the Connor family, their mother suffers from “compulsive spartanism,” constantly cleaning and emptying their house of all its contents, while their father is an alcoholic. As a teenager Vivien gets pregnant, gives her son up for adoption, and leaves home for good, working as a nurse in Africa where she eventually dies. Just as Vivien has been named after Vivien Leigh, so she nicknames plainer Joan “Roo” – a homonym for rue, which means both regret and a medicinal herb. Tolstoy’s maxim that happy families are all alike, whereas every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, certainly applies to Only Sisters.

            Before she dies, Vivien asks her sister to take over her identity and pretend that she remains alive in order to spare their mother extra grief and give her some hope for the future. Joan has to learn to navigate Vivien’s “social media more closely to catch her voice.” Joan’s ventriloquism succeeds but becomes more complicated when her sister’s son, Bruno Edery, tries to contact her after so many years. Bruno’s wife, Ruth, suffers from rare urachal cancer, and once again Joan comes to the rescue. The “urachus is the remnant of an organ in the embryo, a channel connecting the bladder to the umbilical cord.” Her urachus symbolizes the nexus and malfunction between generations. Ruth tells Joan, “Only sisters know what you’ve been through.”

            At the end of the novel Joan begins her own search for her long-lost stepdaughter. She opens a Facebook account and sends out a message: “Are you Zoe Li, born August 2, 1987? I think you might be my stepdaughter.” Families can be lost and gained. After so much loss, Nattel offers a note of hope and redemption, as she warms and calms the polar vortex by dovetailing sisters and extended families.

Born in Montreal, LILIAN NATTEL now lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of Girl at the Edge of SkyWeb of Angels, The Singing Fire and The River Midnight.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Random House Canada (Aug. 2 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0735277060
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0735277069

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.