cover image Sister


A. Manette Ansay. William Morrow & Company, $24 (228pp) ISBN 978-0-688-14449-4

Intense and deeply affecting, Ansay's second novel (after Vinegar Hill and a short-story collection, Read This and Tell Me What it Says) is about loss--of human relationships, of religious faith and in the value of life--and about the mysterious process by which affirmation can again be achieved. It is also yet another story of a dysfunctional family, but Ansay explores this territory with restraint, creating a narrative that rings with emotional truth. From the perspective of marriage and prospective motherhood, narrator Abby Schiller reflects back on the years prior to her 17-year-old brother Sam's disappearance in 1984. As children, she and Sam are psychologically maimed by their bullying father, who brutally taunts them and insists that they conform to strictly differentiated gender roles. The manager of a Ford agency in a small rural township in Wisconsin, Gordon Schiller ridicules Sam's artistic interests, calling him a sissy; drives Abby to a nervous breakdown with his carping about purity and a woman's place in the home; and alienates their mother, Therese, who defiantly takes a job to achieve some independence. Sam, his gentle nature eventually corrupted by fear and anger, seeks salvation among druggies and punks who introduce him to violence. Abby is pulled back from the brink of despair by her devoutly Catholic grandmother. Later, however, when Abby breaks away from the Church, she incurs her grandmother's fury. With quiet assurance, Ansay conveys the atmosphere of a warm, tightly knit community permeated by Catholic observance, where belief in traditional marriage and a husband's preeminence gives some women security and others a lifelong sentence of servitude. Abby's difficult road to understanding, acceptance and a state of grace is related with beautiful control, and this heartbreaking novel resonates with wisdom about life's hard truths. (July)