June 26th, 2011

Rose-coloured Reviews Tell Your Sister by Andrew Daley

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I found Tell Your Sister by Andrew Daley to be a dark ride. Part of that is defo the book’s content and style, but part of it may be me and my mood as I read it.  When I looked up the publisher’s link just now to give to you, I was surprised to see that it was described as “mordantly funny” though actually, there’s some quite sharp wit throughout. It’s weird that I forgot about that, but I was pretty devastated by the stuff that happens to the characters–I guess that’s the mordant part.

This is the story of Dean Higham and Aaron Fenn, childhood friends who grow apart when (a) Aaron starts dating Dean’s sister, Susan and (b) their life situations radically diverge. While Dean and Susan are part of a fairly stable middle-class family, with all the cars and cash and university plans that entails, when Aaron’s mother dies when the boys are in grade 12, Aaron is basically left alone. His father remarries almost immediately and takes his two younger kids to live in another town. The father and stepmother offer no financial or emotional support to Aaron; indeed, they steal his baby bonus cheques. If he wants to even see his sisters, he has to hitchhike to visit.

All of this has already occurred before the book gets rolling, so it’s a lot of despair to absorb before you really even know the characters. And you know, the more I think about it, it *is* the humour that leavens things. A lot of it is just drawn from the fact that the book is set in the 1980s–the astute among you will have picked that up from the baby bonus cheques mentioned above. But it’s also gently funny when the characters go about putting on legwarmers to match their sweaters, or experimenting with this strange new band, Depeche Mode, with utter seriousness.

For most of the book, Aaron’s third-person narrative alternates with Dean’s first-person. Dean’s sections take place about 15 years after his last year of high school, which is the time-period where Aaron’s sections are set. Adult Dean is having troubles with his girlfriend, but also a personal meltdown, which is accelerated when he runs into Aaron’s younger sister, Nancy, who clearly hates him.

The two strands of the book work in concert to gradually reveal to us what Nancy has again Dean. It seems it is something bigger than just failure to be a good friend back when Aaron needed one. The twist at the end is that Dean’s crime *is* only to be a good friend, only on a rather large scale.

Dean’s gradual unravelling also has a humourous edge, because so much of it is set in Toronto’s heinous traffic snarls, which Daley expertly play-by-plays. But Dean really is running from something beyond gridlock and his lame-o girlfriend. And the slow reveal, ping-ponging between the two sections, is simple and unmelodramatic.

I also liked how the two sections slowly show us the strange parallels and mirrorings that Dean’s and Aaron’s lives have. This could’ve been really heavy-handed, but I was only half aware of how the author was guiding me along, right up until the end.

The hiccup in this dual-stranded approach is that a few early scenes are from Susan’s perspective. Nothing wrong with that, except that Susan’s POV is immensely well-drawn and engaging, so it’s frustrating when that goes away after about 50 pages, and we never get back inside her head. It’s a loss, and sort of a strange one. By the end of the book when we find out how Susan’s life works out, she feels like a completely unknown character, while in those early scenes I thought we were on our way to intimacy.

Back to the central story, which is of Aaron’s troubles. The best part of that–only from a literary perspective–is the portrayal of the totally realistic creepoid Warner, who offers to help out Aaron when no one else would. His “help” quickly proves itself to be manipulating Aaron into helping him break the law, but Warner is also a deeply imagined character. His shifting version of the truth, intense relationship with his mother and sister, choice of reading material, even his weirdly well-thought out ways of hooking Aaron into his web–all are fascinating.

But, for rose-coloured me, reading about a fascinating person who is also awful, and does a lot of awful things, was hard. As good as it is, I found *Tell Your Sister* bleak and I sensed some cynicism about human nature. None of the characters make good on their best impulses, and most are prey to their worst–people fail each other over and over again.

Though grim, most of these scenarios were pretty realistic (though I thought that the character of Aaron’s dad was over-the-top–clearly The Worst Person in the World). This novel sometimes glances into YA territory, and I do think it would go over well with teens, but it doesn’t truly fit the category because the outlook is so bleak, as are the out*comes* for the most of the characters. I do recommend you read this book, but only when you are feeling strong.

This is my eighth book for the To Be Read challenge–four more to go!

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