Sunday, July 22, 2007

She's a sister, a stranger: A story untold

When journalist and writer Mary Loudon heard of her sister Catherine's death in 2001, she had not seen her in a dozen years. Catherine had been schizophrenic and had averted any familial company in her last years. Intrigued and grieved by the news, Mary set out to chart her life story by interviewing people who knew her.

This book is the result, and it's an excellent premise for a book on schizophrenia. But you can't help feeling Mary might have done better with a greater emphasis on facts and less on garnishing her sister's story with narrative high jinks.

This is not to suggest that Mary is insincere. Far from it. She has chatted incessantly with Catherine's caretakers and acquaintances. But what are these conversations meant to convey? Mostly the views of others, which border on a colorless similarity. Yes, Catherine was a gifted piano player. Indeed, her alternate identity was not a cover for lesbianism. But if these revelations are so new to Mary herself, one wonders which way the reader is supposed to be headed. If the book is a treatise on schizophrenia, we have had much better-written and more informative ones. If this is a personal memoir, it uncovers a frightening lack of knowledge of one's sibling, however ill she may have been.

There is a diary excerpt from their father's journey to India in 1973 to locate his daughter, who had purportedly "gone missing" in the drug-fueled haunts near the border with Tibet. Here too, one gets the impression of an impatient man railing against the poor conditions ("I want to get out of this bloody country") he has been forced into by a recalcitrant daughter.

Catherine is smart and saucy, but she is also lonely and withdrawn. Do we get to know her better toward the end? Not really. There is an empty feel to the book, as if Mary had a lot of data to invest in the project but no real emotion. So is this an ode to Catherine? No. It's a skillful delusion of love that Mary has readily fallen into.

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From St. Petersburg Times

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