One of the most unfair things about being an avid reader is that it takes a favourite author two to three years to produce a new novel (and I’m talking about a writer who writes at a good clip here; I don’t mean George Freakin R.R. Martin), and then I read it in 24 hours or so and have to wait two to three years for the next one. Why can’t I have the luxury of living in the world of a wonderful book and spending time with the characters for as long as the author got to do which she was writing it? It’s fundamentally unfair.
All this to say: I’ve been waiting for a long time (like, since two days after her last book, The Opposite of Everyone, came out) for Joshilyn Jackson’s book The Almost Sisters to be released. It came out yesterday, and I finished reading it this morning, tears rolling down my face as they always are on the last page of one of her books. And now she has to get busy writing a new book and I have to get busy waiting for it.
The Almost Sisters is the story of Leia Birch Briggs, whose lifelong love-hate relationship with her “perfect” stepsister Rachel comes to a head during a fevered few weeks in a small Southern town. Leia, a successful, single comic-book artist, is unexpectedly pregnant as the result of a one-night stand. Rachel’s picture-perfect marriage is crumbling and her daughter, Leia’s adored niece Lavender, is damaged in the fallout. And the matriarch of the Birch clan, Leia’s 90-year-old grandmother Birchie, has suddenly gone from being the firm foundation on which Leia’s world rests, to being a problem Leia desperately needs to solve.
This novel tackles big issues in the guise of a deceptively light (and often wickedly funny) contemporary novel. Faced with Birchie’s dementia and the determination of her lifelong companion Wattie to help her hide it, Leia has to confront the messy realities of aging and mortality. She also has confront something she’s skated over the surface of her whole life: the racism bubbling beneath her beloved town. Her position in a well-off, respected white family has allowed her to mostly ignore or dismiss racism, but when Leia is confronted with a threat to her grandmother’s black best friend Wattie, she recognizes how much broader that threat has always been — and how it also envelops her own unborn, mixed-race baby. She sees, in a sudden shifting moment, how there has always been a “second South” lurking in the shadows of the loving and loved community she grew up in, and she rightly fears raising her child in that second South, which she knows his skin colour will not allow him to ignore.
What lurks in the shadows matters here, because the third major theme in this short novel is a Jungian meditation on embracing your shadow side. One of the things I love about Jackson’s work (and there are so many) is how fully-fleshed-out the outer as well as the inner lives of her characters are, and this always includes her protagonists’ jobs. Leia is a comic book artist, and there are far more than just perfunctory references to her work and her attendance at conventions (where she’s a bit of a superstar). Jackson shows her own nerd cred with geek references that are spot-on, and it’s clear that she’s done her research into the world of comics, but Leia’s job is far more than just interesting detail. Even as she is wrestling with the complexities of her own real life and the lives of her family, Leia is also planning a follow-up book to her hit graphic novel Violence in Violet and struggling with the relationship between her two characters, the naive and innocent Violet and her protector Violence, a goddess-of-vengeance type superhero. The reader realizes before Leia does that Violet and Violence are two sides of the same coin; Leia has to not only accept this reality about her characters but also apply it to her own life. In order to confront of the racism of the “second South” she lives in, Leia has to embrace both sides of her own nature: the dark side that’s willing to fight fierce and dirty to protect those she loves, and the brighter side that dares to believe a better future may be possible.
Speaking of things the reader figures out before Leia does, there’s a plot twist near the end of this novel that I had worked out from about page one, but I don’t think that’s a weakness: it may be intentional. There are always deeply buried, long-held family secrets in Joshilyn Jackson’s novels: her complicated, loving, blended Southern families teem with skeletons and closets, both literal and metaphorical. Sometimes the whole point of a family secret is that it isn’t that big of a secret to an outside observer, like the reader. It’s only when you’re immersed in the world of a family, a town, a culture, as the characters are, that the truth is unthinkable — until you’re forced to confront it. Leia and her family confront a lot of hard truths in this novel, and the journey is rich, rewarding and often funny for the reader — till you find yourself on the last page, crying, and realizing you have to wait another two or three years to read a book this good again.