Elevate Difference

My Sister Chaos

A woman leaves her country at the last minute, as a refugee in a civil war. She and her sister leave together and seek asylum in a new country where they will continue their lives. Laura Fergus’s wonderful first novel takes up the story of this woman (I) and her sister (the sister). We do not learn the sisters’ names. We do learn that they are twins and that they are no longer very young. We do not learn the country from which they came nor the country in which they sought asylum. We do not learn the city in which they live. We do not learn the name of the war that scarred them.

The story begins in Chapter 1 with our main narrator, the cartographer—the sister identified with “I.” We eventually learn that she is a highly skilled cartographer, and was well-respected in her native country. In her new country, she works at a level well below that from which she came. Her detachment from her job and her isolation afford her a great deal of time for her pet project: she is creating a map of her house.

Her map is of a specific kind: she is not simply drawing her house and its contents to scale. She has designated her drafting table as her Point of Beginning and she draws from that point to create her map. This means that, from that point, she measures distances and angles which, when completed, must add up to the whole with nothing missing and nothing left over. This kind of measuring can take into account previous boundaries, as well as histories of change and movement. As the story progresses, we find our protagonist agonizing over how to do just this. Beginning in Chapter 1 (the reader’s point of beginning, of a sort), the cartographer must find a way to include her sister and her sister’s chaos into the map she is making.

We do not meet the sister herself until the second part of the book. The sister’s chapters are fractions. We meet her in Chapter 12.5. She is not a whole number. The sister’s story is only ever mediated to us via her sister or an unknown narrator. However, it is the sister who reveals the cartographer and her map to us and to the cartographer. The cartographer herself, we learn, is herself not a whole number. In Chapter 21.75, the cartographer has a flashback. Her past comes creeping in and exceeds the precision the cartographer seeks. As the story progresses, the chapter numbers become increasingly fractured as the maps and the house and the sisters are found to exceed the sum of their measures. The cartographer abandons her map and begins to cut apart her house so it can match the map; the sister takes up the map and paints a new one. At the end of the book, the sisters have taken up the common project of destroying and recreating the house from the inside.

I cannot do justice to this book in such small space. It is marvelous. I’m still not sure I fully understand it, but it kept me up all night the night I read it and I look forward to rereading it.

Written by: kristina grob, January 13th 2011