Monday, February 24, 2014

The Moon Sisters (Therese Walsh)

Thanks to NetGalley for this e-ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Make way for a weird, delicious book that is like your dreams but written down by someone else. Therese Walsh has produced a beautiful little novel and it is about a lot of things and it will bleed inside of you.

The Moon Sisters is, most simply, about the Moon sisters: Jazz, the older, is a stubborn, hardened realist, and Olivia, the younger, lives a real-life fairy tale because of her synesthesia, a mental "wiring" condition in which senses overlap and names have flavors, for example. At the beginning of the novel, Jazz and Olivia's mother has died a few months ago, suffocated in the kitchen by the gas stove, which Olivia believes to be an accident and Jazz believes to be suicide.

Their mother suffered from what sounds a lot like depression, having strong, long-lasting mood swings and chronic exhaustion. She spent her entire married life laboring over a novel she never could bring herself to finish, and she believed that seeing the will-o'-the-wisps in a local park would inspire her. After her death, Olivia blinds herself by staring into the sun and Jazz gets hired at the local funeral home, preparing to settle into a boring life in Tramp, the West Virginia town the Moon family has always known.

Olivia impulsively decides that she and Jazz ought to go looking for the will-o'-the-wisps, and Jazz hesitantly agrees. Their car breaks down and Olivia hops onto a train in a desperate attempt to fulfill her mother's dream. There, she meets Hobbs, a guy with face tattoos who is trying to run away from his life, and he agrees to lead her on her quest. Jazz, ever dedicated to rationality and level-headedness, angrily pursues them.

Walsh writes a gorgeous novel. I once read a book about synesthesia that was interesting but frustrating in how focused it was on the main character's perception of the world. The descriptions of sound's colors and flavors got in the way of anything resembling a story or character development and it was ultimately disappointing. But Walsh is far more capable; giving Olivia this sensory overlap allows the book to sparkle with poetic descriptions of the everyday world. It remains fascinating but never impedes the story it tells.

The narrative takes turns alternating between Olivia and Jazz as narrators, and it works really well. The danger of having two characters constantly in conflict and only letting one of them narrate is that it will make the other character seem unbearable. The author has divvied up narrating responsibilities, and it prevents any such problems of one character we really like and one we don't. In Olivia's sections, Jazz is an irritating stickler for the rules and is bossy and controlling. In Jazz's sections, Olivia is a spacey dreamer with no grip on reality and a penchant for annoying nonsense. Their internal monologues are so well-written and fleshed out that you are on the side of whichever sister is talking. It's very well-done.

Thematically, the book is heavy but deliciously arranged. We cover maternal love, sisterly love, romantic love, depression, suicide, familial estrangement, alcoholism, homelessness, runaways, and theft in the less-than-300 pages that this book is, but it never once feels like an "issues" novel--it's overflowing with them, but Walsh has compiled them so neatly that you aren't bored or moralized. The novel will consistently set you up for heartbreak, and it will manage to shatter you over and over. In Walsh's more-than-capable hands, you will feel very lonely and sad (but you'll like it, I promise).

Truly, The Moon Sisters is a stunner. Imagine taking a really beautiful poem and stretching it like taffy or raw gold, pulling and shaping it into something more wonderful than the small nugget you had before. That's what this book is like. And because it feels like such a fever dream, it will stay with you for a long time afterward. Go forth and read. It's lovely.

My rating: 5/5
The Moon Sisters on Goodreads
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