Andrea Gunraj's The Lost Sister
Reviewed by Marcie McCauley
When fifteen-year-old Diana disappears in June, 1998, Alisha is “hardly thirteen.” Every springtime, the Sookermany family has taken photographs in front of the crabapple trees near their apartment building; after Diana’s disappearance, Alisha is the only child in the photograph.
Alisha takes centre stage in Andrea Gunraj’s novel The Lost Sister (2019), but her identity is subsumed under the burden of loss. This weight accumulates for readers via flashbacks; readers look back to the summer of Diana’s disappearance first, then further via Alisha’s memories.
Alisha’s childhood in the 1990s is constructed using details like a Discman’s foam headphones and games of Red Rover, homemade videotapes of movies like The Karate Kid and Coming to America, and bags of Peak Freans Fruit Creme cookies.
Mr. Sookermany’s work as an administrative assistant at an insurance company allows the family to eschew off-brand cookies, but economics matter in the Sookermany family’s story, which plays out on the twenty-third floor of a North York high-rise, among “blocks and blocks of mismatched apartment buildings and townhomes and houses” in Toronto.
Economics matter even more in the parallel storyline which opens the novel’s second chapter: seven-year-old Paula and her younger sister are taken to the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in 1938. Paula remains there until she moves to Toronto as a young woman. In her sixties, while volunteering in a school library, Paula meets Alisha: the storylines intersect.
Paula’s mention of her girlhood friend from Guyana sparks a connection with Alisha, whose mother grew up in a rural Guyanese community. In time, the books that Paula recommends to Alisha secure their connection; in more time, their respective losses intensify their bond, for Paula has lost her sister, Ave, too.
Detailed chapter headings root readers in times and places, but with absence as the overarching theme, memories and imaginings are key; they allow readers to inhabit (or dwell on) these characters’ pasts, to anticipate (or dread) their futures, and to invest in these relationships.
Diana’s abduction and Ave’s absence underpin the novel’s key relationships—in the Sookermany family and in Paula’s orphanage experiences. Paula’s storyline was inspired by the author’s real-life friendship with Garnet Smith, a survivor of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, whose story also appears in Wanda Lauren Taylor’s The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children: The Hurt, the Hope, and the Healing (2015).
The systemic racism which proliferated in this institution is also evident in the investigation and media coverage of Diana’s disappearance. This kind of injustice is explored in the 2019 CBC investigative podcast about 15-year-old Sharmini Anandavel’s disappearance, also from a North York neighbourhood of Toronto, in June 1999. Though historically specific – the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry was launched in 2015 – Gunraj’s novel explores universal themes of inequity and discrimination, themes relevant to today’s readers.
The Toronto and Nova Scotia settings are developed just enough to secure the characters’ experiences. Alisha attends Don Mills Collegiate Institute and goes to the Jane Finch mall, whereas Paula’s experience of Nova Scotia is rooted in her observations of the natural world, simultaneously specific and vague, of clover and crabgrass along the orphanage’s steps.
In Alisha’s experience of sisterhood without her sister, subtle markings of time passing and comprehension changing are effective: the intensity and frequency of conversations with detectives and investigators, the growth and decay of the crabapple trees, and Alisha’s gradual awareness of the effect that Diana’s disappearance has had on her parents’ marriage. Alisha’s complicated emotions are clear but not sentimentalized. (Andrea Gunraj’s first novel, 2009’s The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha, also explores a sense of being second-best in comparison to a seemingly-more-accomplished-but-absent sibling.)
Paula recommends to Alisha books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the second in Mildred Taylor’s sequence of tales about the Logan family, in which Cassie Logan’s mother glues a piece of paper over the notice in Cassie’s textbook that dictates that it is only fit for use by black students. She also recommends Octavia Butler’s Kindred, wherein Dana time-travels when she is unpacking a box of books in 1976 to the antebellum American South. And Paula suggests The Maroons of the New World as a suitable topic for her public speaking assignment.
These are stories of revolution and resistance, of integrity and self-insistence. Through and across time, stories about girls and women who survive and thrive offer hope and strength to readers.
Andrea Gunraj’s story presents resilient characters who cope with grief, but The Lost Sister is also a story about stories that serves to remind us that we are always creating our own narratives. Like Alisha, like Paula—when we have the courage to confront the past, we can redirect our attention and we can create another kind of story, for ourselves and for each other.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.