In Imagining Ancient Women (2011), Annabel Lyon declares that “literary fiction is uniquely poised to perform an important ethical function in our lives—namely to teach us compassion”.

She warns of the pitfalls: moral outrage, forbidden love, and excessive decoration. All of which she avoids in Consent. So much so, that it’s tempting to describe this slim volume in oppositional terms, to call it cool, loveless, and stark. But that would be disingenuous: this is a novel about two pairs of sisters and there is a lot of emotion lurking in the corners of the story.

The two women who play the dominant roles in this novel are, at best, troubled and, at worst, traumatized.

(At first I was concerned that it would be difficult to distinguish between the four sisters, but their names—Saskia and Jenny, Sara and Mattie—are fairly distinctive and their characters solidly developed.)

What they are capable of sharing with readers is limited: at times, they keep certain knowledge and awareness at a distance themselves, and as the story unfolds, there are additional reasons why it’s difficult for readers to fully understand the sibling relationships and the women’s individual selves.

Lyon develops her scenes meticulously from her characters’ perspectives, however. The details that they observe and describe provides readers with some clues to understanding the women. One, for instance, is painfully aware of scents and observes a secondary character’s wife as follows: “Alice beamed at her, and turned to greet other significant donors. She was tiny and electric and smelled of vanilla, orange, and smoke.”

Taking a whiff of that complexity—those three strong and competing odors—and there’s a hint of the kind of complexity that arises in the novel’s relationships. There are a number of scenes, in which a single character or a pair of characters appear to directly confront matters of consent. But the resolutions are unexpected or nonexistent, leaving readers to finish posing questions as well as inwardly debating possible answers.

Consider this brief discussion between Saskia and David, at a charity event he has organized:

“You know I hate prepared piano. It’s stupid.” [Saskia]

“It’s just corks.” [David]

“Wedged into the strings.” She shook her head. “Piano rape.”

“Don’t knock it till you try it.” David flashed the grin that had raised his hospital millions over the years.

Even though the language is more functional than figurative, the occasional exception to that rule underscores tension and desperation in the novel. So Saskia and Jenny’s father went “back to work the way a pit bull goes back to a mailman’s leg—grim, ferocious, unrelenting, joyless”. And “voicemails studded her days, like pills or cigarettes”. This subtle shaping kept me turning the pages, finishing in just a couple of reading sessions.

For me, the most satisfying element of this novel is its exposure of the unresolved, of the questions which remain unanswered (sometimes for a lifetime). But this is intertwined with one element of resolution which seems, at best, contradictory and, at worst, incredible. This could be in service of this overarching idea of the unanswerable—evidence of an even greater degree of dedication to what remains unresolved—but it’s also possible to view it as a solution.

Perhaps the lipsticked-goblet on the cover is an open invitation to book club members, who would find much to discuss in Consent.

Despite the fact that Lyon was longlisted for the Giller in 2012 (The Sweetest Girl), shortlisted in 2009 for The Golden Mean, and was on the jury in 2011 (the year that Half-Blood Blues won), this year’s jury did not advance Consent to the shortlist.

Inner workings
Because the bulk of the novel is concerned with the sisters’ shifts of thought, the novel’s interiority is unsurprising.
Nonetheless, there is no sense of intimacy despite the intensity of their experiences.
Readers are held at arm’s length, beyond a protective layer.

Acutely aware of the importance of detail and clarity, Lyon puts language to work with few embellishments:
“Saskia knew she looked like what she was: a depressed, penniless student who resembled her twin the way a raisin resembles a grape.”

The setting seems deliberately ambiguous. With the focus on relationships, emotional territory overshadows geographical specificity.
That said, there are some striking descriptions of the characters’ surroundings.
Like this one:
“Months later she would walk the same sidewalks, now through slush like filthily gravied and peppered mashed potato.”

This is the type of novel which requires an investment on the part of readers, a willingness to pierce the reserve that swaddles the sisters.
Curiosity alone seems unlikely to suffice, because the mysteries which arise are viewed from the perspective of a limited understanding—some characters are too damaged themselves to ask the questions which might give readers another route into the heart of the novel.

Readers Wanted
You have a sister, or you wanted one (now I’m not so sure).
What you desire and what you despise: you’re fascinated by the interplay.
A book you admire can be as affecting as a book that you love.
When you read a novel, you’re not expecting to find a new bestie.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!