In her sophomore novel, The Lost Sister, Andrea Gunraj once again takes siblingship as her focus. Gunraj crafts a mesmeric read that is part tragic coming-of-age tale and part historical fiction.
Alisha Sookermany lives in her older sister’s shadow. Diana Sookermany is smart and athletic. At the top of her class, she dreams of one day becoming a doctor. She seems to be good at everything. Alisha’s admiration fights with her envy of Diana. She wishes that she could capture the attention of their parents the way that Diana does. They live in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, in one of the ubiquitous high rise apartment blocks where many immigrant families find their footing. Their mother was a renowned beauty queen in her home country of Guyana. Their handsome father works hard as an administrative assistant; a provider, protector, and hero to the two girls. They are the ideal family, striving to succeed in a country far to the North of their tropical homeland. Bea and Donald want the best for their daughters, who feel the pressure and respond with ambition. Diana and Alisha push themselves to be the best.
Everything changes when, one summer day in Toronto, Diana goes missing. Alisha is the last person to see her alive. She is haunted by her final glimpse of Diana outside a North Toronto mall. The next time she sees Diana, everything she once knew falls apart in a collection of bones retrieved from the Don Valley. Alisha harbours a secret that could change the course of the investigation, if only she could find the courage to tell it. The reader is kept in a state of constant suspense, following along the narrative investigation with the same sense of anxiety and suspended hope as the Sookermanys, who wait for the answer to their only question: what happened to Diana?
Paula is a volunteer librarian at Alisha’s school. An older woman, she gives her time to the library share her love of books with the children. When Diana goes missing, Alisha forms a friendship with Paula. After all, Paula knows what it is like to miss a sister. After being taken from their mother by two stern men in an official black car, Paula and her sister Ave find themselves residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. The two sisters find support in one another as they face long years of institutionalization in an abusive environment, where food and love are both luxuries withheld from the children. They lose touch after leaving the orphanage, each scarred in their own way by their upbringing. It may be up to Alisha to find a way to reconcile Paula’s love for her sister with the trauma of their shared past.
The Lost Sister is a rare portrait of two women of colour who form bonds of friendship across generational lines. Gunraj expertly ties their stories together, one just as intriguing as the other. She delicately balances the tense narrative pace with keen insight into each character. She illustrates racism in its insidious and overt forms while never becoming heavy handed in delivering a social message. She lets the story speak for itself. The investigation into Diana’s disappearance is questioned by her parents, who know that race plays a role when women and girls go missing in Canada. “They didn’t search for my Dee properly and they made up their minds that she ran away,” laments Alisha’s mother: “If she was a white girl, you think they’d behave this way? You heard what they do to us, to the natives and the blacks and the immigrants. You know they don’t care.”
In Paula’s story we see the blunt force trauma of racism in the segregation of Black children in an underfunded institution that forced them into hard labour, deprived them of a proper education, abused and starved them. Born in 1931, Paula is a storyteller who carries the past into the present by gifting Alisha with both art and literature. She encourages Alisha to read works by Black authors: The Bluest Eye, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Kindred, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “I had never read anything like these books before. I wasn’t sure I understood all of what was in them, but I discovered I could escape in their pages.” Literature acts as a bridge between Alisha and Paula, connecting them despite the odds, allowing for healing and connection.
Paula is descended from the famed Maroons who helped to build Halifax’s Citadel Hill. Like the rumours of tunnels dug beneath the hill, escape routes to George’s Island, Paula’s narrative excavates the hidden history the N.S. Home for Colored Children. It offers a glimpse at the long and complicated history of African Nova Scotians. Alisha’s tale illustrates the family connections that keep us rooted in place or send us searching for something we may never find.
Gunraj’s novel is a true page turner: I was hooked into the story immediately and would close a chapter eagerly awaiting what would happen next. The story never loses its steam. Andrea Gunraj has delivered an expertly executed second novel proving that she is a rising star on the CanLit scene.