Once in a while we wish we could see ourselves as others see us. The mirror presents us with a kind of longing; if we could somehow cross over, we feel we would know, not the who-ness, but the what-ness of ourselves. Jane Alison’s memoir, ‘The Sisters Antipodes,’ recently out in paperback, recounts her story of nearly stepping through the looking-glass: a four-year-old girl and her older sister learn that their parents have traded partners with another couple who in turn have a four-year-old girl who has an older sister. The two younger girls happen to share the same birthday; one is named Jane, the other Jenny.
From the first page, the prose sears with its matter-of-factness and personal intensity. Except for a side-step in which Alison ponders whether her step-father worked for the CIA and helped bring down the government of Ecuador, the story makes scant reference to the times. She seems at pains to NOT ground this story in the era of social experimentation and free-love even though it begins in the Australian summer of 1965. Out the outset, both fathers worked in the foreign service and were stationed on the Pacific rim but we hear nothing of Vietnam. As the years churn by, the four girls grow up, seeing each other and their re-matched parents in cities around the world, living in a Leiden jar of comparison and contrast, but seemingly oblivious to the Cold War and then Glasnost, Apartheid and then Islamism. Even the older sisters drift to the periphery as Alison focuses on the contest between herself and Jenny to be seen not so much in light of the other but in place of the other.
Many will be tempted to read the story through a psychiatric lens: two girls vying for the love of cold and distant fathers. Indeed, since parental affection comes mostly as shrugs of disappointment, back-handed compliments, and sighs of boredom, a plausible subtitle for ‘The Sisters Antipodes’ could be ‘How to Make a Borderline Personality.’ However, the spiraling of Alison’s often elegant prose, always building and deepening, and then drawing back, then driving on, points us elsewhere. Rhythmically, it is somewhat reminiscent of a Puccini aria. Structurally, there is the promise of a climax in which all mysteries will fall away. But, viscerally, there is an equally gnawing sense of an impending, unclarifying doom.
The döpplegangers , the step-mothers, the chiasmatic plots structure largely prove to be red herrings. Alison leads us not into a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, nor toward catharsis or enlightenment. The book ends in a muddle. There is more divorce, addiction, anonymous sex, a suicide, and a harrowing scene in which Alison herself cannot verify a series of memories that earlier were presented as fact. Far from bringing about transformation or redemption, her experiences of loss, homelessness, and disregard were exactly what they were. The power of the book is that one comes away with a profound sense of distrust in our overly fretful contemporary obsession with agonizing about our inner child. No one in ‘The Sisters Antipodes’ can be said to have gotten unqualifiedly what they wanted; their pasts may captivate them but their test has been and is simply to endure.