Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson. Grand Central, November 2013, ISBN 9781455528400. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.
Makeda and Abby were born conjoined twins, and their separation wasn’t easy on them: Abby needs a cane to walk and Makeda has grown up without mojo, the only claypicken human in a family of demigods. As Sister Mine begins, Makeda is still struggling to separate from Abby, to make her own home and have her own relationships and fulfill her own responsibilities without Abby’s micromanagement. This alone would be a tall enough order for the immature and insecure Makeda, but of course more challenges await, in the form of the disappearance of the sisters’ hospitalized father, and the appearance of a frightening haint who won’t leave Makeda alone.
The opening scenes ground the reader in Makeda’s Toronto, from her colourful bohemian apartment building to the overgrown chicory and rusted rebar of the Leslie Street Spit. But the story soon veers off into other territory, the Toronto of Makeda’s family, magical and mercurial and harder to grasp. There’s a lot going on in this book, reality and myth and imagination, music and craft and medicine, and the blend feels dizzying at first.
Makeda herself adds to the reader’s disorientation by changing her mind about almost everything, often several times within the same scene. She yaws from adoring Abby to resenting her to asking her for help. What I initially read as a bug turns out to be a feature, though: Makeda’s emotional lability mirrors the changeable natures of her extended family, and in turn, the metaphysical layers of their city. There’s no escape from any of this complexity; Makeda’s challenge, and the reader’s, is to embrace enough of it to get by.
Hopkinson’s skill with voice adds another layer of complexity to the novel, and it’s as enjoyable as always; her dialogue, especially, incorporates music and slang and poetry and pop culture into a blend that is at once unique and totally comfortable. Abby and Makeda fight and banter, sometimes with the loving snark of sisterhood, sometimes in their own secret twin-language, and sometimes in actual song.
The relationship between Abby and Makeda is, of course, the heart of the novel. Quotes from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” appear throughout Sister Mine, and like the sisters in the poem, Abby and Makeda push and pull at each other, sometimes urging each other to do their best, sometimes saving each other from their worst. It’s clear that although they were physically separated at birth, they’re still joined at the soul.
Their relationship is more than sisterly, and theirs isn’t the only relationship, either; each sister has other loves, some of whom are shared. This dimension of Sister Mine might have felt prurient in the hands of another author, but Hopkinson keeps it matter-of-fact, and it feels entirely consistent with the characters as the reader comes to know them. Their sexuality is just another of the many inventive aspects that make Sister Mine such a fascinating novel, and so completely without cliché.
None of Hopkinson’s books have been quite like the others, or quite like anything else, and I very much look forward to what she offers next.