(#95) Book Review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

Tess and Lizzie are sisters whose bond runs deep.  As children, the two of them live in two worlds: the real one  and the imagined one in which they are selkie girls, mermaids, horses who can fly.  Tess is the magical one, the one who believes in the fantastical world so strongly that it consumes her.  Lizzie wants to believe, so she tries as hard as she can, but she’s never as convinced as Tess is.  As the two grow older, Lizzie starts to lose her hold on the fantastical, but Tess still clings to it.  Then Tess dies, and Lizzie is left to deal with the aftermath and her residual guilt.

This is a really dark book.

The word on the street is that this book had a hard time being sold because publishers were so worried about how dark it is.  Pixley’s story about the love between two sisters and how their bond is effected as one descends into madness starts out hard, and it only gets harder.  It’s different, and its emotions are quiet and affecting but never melodramatic.  An emotionally taxing read, this one is ultimately worth the effort.

More than one reviewer has mentioned the similarities between Pixley’s books at Nova Ren Suma’s excellent magical realism story Imaginary Girls, and while I certainly see the connections, each story is strong enough to stand on its own.  While Suma’s Imaginary Girls was full-on magical realism, with Ruby’s ability to bend the rules of the natural world, Pixley’s Without Tess is much quieter and much more grounded in actual realism.  Like Chloe in Girls, Lizzie looks up to her older sister and wants to make her happy–whatever the cost.  Like Chloe, Lizzie is an unreliable narrator, but it doesn’t feel as intentional here.  Lizzie is drowning in her grief over the lost of Tess, and that is what distorts her story.

A compelling story overall, Pixley excels at creating a realistic, palpable bond between Lizzie and Tess.  The two girls grow up fairly isolated, away from town and near the water.  For most of their early lives, there are not other children to play with, and so the two girls make their own fun.  As Tess imagines different creatures for them, Lizzie struggles to keep up.  The introduction of a third party (in this case, a young girl exactly Lizzie’s age) creates expected tension and adds a nice complexity to the story.  Both girls are remarkably well-drawn.

The novel is relatively brief, and while I would have liked to have spent a little more time with Lizzie as a teenager, her memories of the past are haunting.  She is so overcome with guilt and grief that memories of Tess are almost drowning her, and Pixley does an excellent job of conveying that.  A cathartic read with a slightly hopeful ending, this will resonate with readers who enjoy dark stories about sisters.

Without Tess hits bookshelves on October 11, 2011.

Without Tess by Marcella Pixley.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

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