Readers of Alix Ohlin’s fiction will not be surprised to find an introspective narrator in her second novel (following Inside, which was also longlisted for the Giller Prize).
But what’s remarkable about Dual Citizens is how simultaneously intimate and distanced the narrative is. Readers feel like they are privy to all of the facts, down to the details, what she does while she’s waiting for her sister to be finished with her piano lesson and the courses she takes at college, without knowing the truth of any of it. You’re super-close and at arm’s length: it’s a strange feeling.
It shouldn’t be a surprise either. The book is structured in four parts, of unequal length: Before, Childhood, Motherhood, and After. Even from a young age, she sees herself as a “collector of patterns, a magpie in search of scraps”. This narrative is filled with what she has collected.
She is also an eavesdropper: “This was my ideal situation, to be present and listening in one room while the action happened in the next, and during those long dusty hours I was happier than I’d ever been.” And more comfortable when talking to someone with whom “talking…was like talking to myself”. That’s a whole lot of quiet.
As a film editor, she is viewing the frames of her life: “I heard as if from a great distance the sound my head made against the curb. I noticed my odd, sharp landing on the ground as you might notice a funny noise in your car just before the brakes fail or the engine catches fire.”
And she reevaluates the framework as time passes:
“When I was a child this block had been a universe to me, its borders unknowable, and it was unsettling to see how finite it was, how easily escapable.”
Dialogue is not simply heard, it is studied and contemplated:
“This is a summary. The actual speech was scattered and angry, and Robin kept interrupting him, defending Canada and Canadians – I think? – and her own life, her commitments, her ideology.”
And because there have been some fractures in her life – literal and metaphorical – she is even further distanced from her own surroundings, her own world:
“I asked how the weather was in Montreal, about which she harbored endless comments. In those years I often knew more about the forecast there than where I lived.”
So Dual Citizens is about two sisters, but it’s also about how one might tell a tale of two sisters.
It’s about the way that one might frame the telling, the process by which readers can examine the shape of the frame for clues about the architect.
If this isn’t the kind of fictional landscape you enjoy inhabiting, you’d do better to apply for citizenship in some other writer’s country.
(You can see all the shadows for the sticky-notes in my reading, in the image alongside, as part of the bigger shadow. That’s an indication of how enjoyable it was to assemble my understanding. But because this process reveals some unexpected truths, it would be spoilery to say much more about it.)
SHADOW GILLER 2019: You can also follow the Shadow Giller Jury’s progress at Kevin from Canada’s site and read Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink. Our reading schedule for this year’s shortlist is here, if you’d like to mark a particular title on your own calendar.