“Sisters of the Undertow”
Author: Johnnie Bernhard
Publisher: Texas Review Press
Price: $21.95 (Paper)
Bernhard’s third novel is the story of two sisters and may be enjoyed by women who have a sister, but these sisters are far from average. The problems of sibling rivalry and family dynamics presented here are far from common.
Kimberly Ann Hodges, our first-person narrator, tells us about her parents, David and Sandy, a happy couple living a relatively carefree life in Pasadena, Texas in the 1960s.
“Sisters” explores overtly the question of luck—good and bad. Sandy’s luck turns bad with a series of miscarriages. Then, to Sandy’s great relief, Kim is born healthy. Sixteen months later, however, Kathy Renee is born and life for mother, father and little Kim is never the same again.
Kathy is born at 29 weeks, weighing 3 pounds, with an IQ, we are told, of 85, which is at the low end of what is considered normal.
Kathy Renee’s problems—she is small, partly deaf, wears hearing aids at age 10, has terrible eyesight and wears corrective shoes—consume Sandy, who devotes herself to Kathy’s development. She becomes obsessed. There are endless hours of flashcards, multiplication tables, phonetics, reading and speech lessons.
Kathy’s problems leave no room for Kim, a pretty and bright child, who is TOLD she is the lucky one, but is ignored and even sent to live with her eccentric grandmother, who feeds her only mac and cheese and boiled hot dogs.,
At South Padre Island on vacation, Kim is caught in a rip tide and, although saved immediately by her dad, is terrified. Paradoxically, that dramatic incident in which she has her father’s full attention marks Kim’s last happiness.
Kim withdraws into the world of books which, she tells us, she grew to prefer to people.
She is in the top reading group at school, the Blue Birds. And, starting with the Nancy Drew mysteries, we are told what she reads from early childhood to the end of her 40s.
Kim moves through “The Prince of Tides,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “A Passage to India,” and works by Isabel Allende and Anne Patchett, among many others.
Alienated from the world of people, Kim becomes a librarian and a good one.
But, for the longest time, she does not become a likeable person. Kim is, for most of her life, incapable of giving or receiving love. She is angry, then cruel, to Kathy, then feels guilty for being mean and feeling anger, a truly vicious cycle. She describes herself as crazy, with contempt for the human race.
Sadly, she has been unlucky in many other respects as well. On a high school date she is sexually assaulted, then at Texas Tech she is assaulted and beaten, and a boy she does care for drowns. All three of these young men are football players, a species she professes to despise.
Kathy, the recipient of so much parental attention, becomes a high school graduate then a Certified Nursing Assistant in a nursing home. Though limited in many ways, she is a happy, positive, loving person, albeit religiously obsessed. Kathy hands out prayer cards everywhere she goes and travels with a kind of portable altar. She returns her sister’s cruelty with kindness and forgiveness, which is of course infuriating to Kim.
The subject matter of “Sisters of the Undertow” will speak to some readers but the novel is not gracefully written and needed further editing. The not-quite-right word is often used. “Imaging” is not imagining. A dog is “restrained” not “refrained.” One does not take a “thoughtful long drawl” from a straw.
These small uglinesses may seem minor but, because they are so numerous, I find they are irritating and distract one from the story of sibling misery and neurosis which is being honestly and painfully told here.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.