What if every messy, misconstrued moment in a person’s life was put on display and called into question? Do the mistakes define that person? Or is it merely a learning curve one must experience to find their true selves? In Our Sister Who Will Not Die, a compilation of eleven complex and raw stories, Rebecca Bernard explores the darkest innerworkings of her characters, and possibly people in general, while maintaining their humanity. She is able to offer a glimpse into the twisted happenstances of the most troubled minds, all the while sprinkling them all with a glimmer of hope so the reader maintains a thread of compassion for each.
The opening story, “In the Family,” follows the grieving process of a mother and all she’s lost in a short amount of time. Her grief is rippled by the regret and guilt she feels over her son’s death and compounded by a community that was once compassionate towards her loss when it was her husband, but now blames her for the son’s demise. In this journey of truth and lies, redemption and remorse, the reader is left to wonder how we should feel about his woman. Are we meant to believe she is at fault for so many wrong-doings or was it the tragic hand she was dealt that caused a domino effect beyond her control? While she may not be a character we love or necessarily even agree with, Bernard’s exquisite ability to capture raw human emotions with her words ensures the readers will at least consider feeling sympathy, if not fully accepting her choices. For instance, near the end we teeter on the edge of compassion or abhorrence, the narrator says, “She closes her eyes, feels her guilt like the thick loam of the earth mounting her, piling around her in a thick, confusing agony.” Even when these characters are not all that likable or understandable, Bernard’s word choice transcribes emotions that others might find hard to communicate and leaves them brazenly on the page.
Likewise, in “First Date,” the second story in the collection, a man is newly released from a life sentence for murdering his father. In a world he hasn’t had a part in for sixteen years, he must come to terms with not only his actions of the past, but also how he is now perceived by others around him. Even if the reader cannot possibly understand why he made the choice he made, or how someone could find sympathy for a man who took such drastic actions, the character descriptions and the dialogue between this lost man and the woman he is trying to find happiness with make it nearly impossible not to cheer him on. “And the thing they don’t say is that shame and fear and regret are instantaneous, are there even before the fugue state lifts and the sound of the gunshot hits your ears and Doreen, Doreen, this is what it was like, but tell me can you love me now, ever, tomorrow?” Despite this grotesque act he committed as a youth, Bernard was able to create a resounding benevolence about him that urges the reader to root for his happiness in finding love.
Other stories in the collection come to terms with the weaknesses in humanity and many of the undesirable thoughts that plague each and every one of us – though, some more extreme than others. From pedophilia to drug addiction, abuse to adultery, each story highlights the painful and disordered elements of humankind but never loses the tether of empathy. In the title piece, “Our Sister Who Will Not Die,” a group of siblings have assembled to mourn the eldest sister on her deathbed. It is through a ping-ponging of perspectives and each sibling’s personal story about the elder sister that we learn she was mentally ill. Memories shared throughout the story – like when she insisted her brother tried to kill her or when she would steal credit cards from her siblings’ wallets and spend exorbitant amounts of money – expose some of the most heinous, outrageous behavior this sister exhibited, and yet, they were all there, together, showing remorse and love for a sister who did anything but make their lives easy.
Along the way, within every word of every anecdote, Bernard helps us understand the conflicting feelings the siblings have. At the beginning the narrator says, “We all once lived in mother’s womb; the hot, shared space intimate and now distant.” Then, in the very last lines we read, “We all lived once as children, as adults, but now in this small, white room, we come, at last, to honesty, to ugliness, together.” How magnificent is this tug-of-war between support and compassion and realizing the faults and spitefulness of people. A multitude of emotions like this are hard to pin down, but this is what writing and art is for. This is what makes the characters and their actions not admissible, necessarily, but essential. We need these characters to not only better understand the depths of our own culpability, but more importantly, to find it within ourselves to have tenderness and compassion for others.
While none of the eleven stories in Bernard’s debut collection have a tidy conclusion, they all offer up just a sliver of hope that leaves a lingering desire for their characters’ happiness. Separately, the machinations and characters within them are powerful, insightful, and absorbing. But together, this compilation and the dynamics within the relationships are unforgettable. The morbid elements that draw a person to make the decisions they make and the exploration of whether or not forgiveness and redemption are possible, all come together so naturally that the reader is left pondering these characters long after the stories have concluded and the book is back on the shelf.
Our Sister Who Will Not Die: Stories
By Rebecca Bernard
Mad Creek Books
August 26, 2022