Giller Shortlist: Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin

With an interviewer at the Quill & Quire, Alix Ohlin talks about how most of her stories and writing come about organically – without a lot of outlining. However, when beginning this book she knew she wanted to write a love story between two sisters. And she knew she wanted to address questions of identity connected to feminism, motherhood, and what art-making and ambition can look like in women’s lives.” In addition, Ohlin is interested in “the ways that women define themselves in relationship to, in complement or contrast to, another woman who’s important to them.”

So she created Lark and Robin – sisters who form a strong bond at an early age; due, in part, to their erratic mother whose presence and affection can’t be counted on.

Lark is gifted academically and left home after high school to attend college in New England, where she discovers a love for film. Robin is musically gifted and gets into Julliard to study piano. Once they leave home, neither of them feel any longing to go back. And their mother does nothing to make them feel wanted.

Over the years, Lark and Robin drift in and out of each other’s lives.

… I missed her with an ache that flared suddenly and didn’t diminish so much as recede, with willed effort, to a back alley of my mind.

It’s through Lark’s experiences and observations that we learn what happens to the sisters, and between the sisters, as their lives unfold independently, yet always with an eye toward the other.

It seemed only right that the world found my sister as exceptional as I did, and myself as ordinary.

Men waltz in and out of their lives with minimal significance. Lark hides behind one for a while, content and comfortable, until she realizes that what she really wants is something he can’t give her. We don’t even know the nature of the relationships between Robin and the men in her life – an indication of their lack of importance in her quest for independence and meaning.

Both sisters go through life as outsiders. They create a distance from their mother, their place of birth, men, and at times, each other.

The membrane I’d felt before in college, separating me from everyone else, still endured, but now I considered it protective, and I hummed with activity behind it, purposeful, unseen.

Most of the time I lay on my bed in the Tunnel, feeling the invisible membrane that had long separated me from other people enclose me, and now it was thick and suffocating, and yet I could do nothing to break through it.

And both girls are collectors; Lark collecting facts that she stores in her brain, and Robin collecting abandoned pianos that she stores in her barn.

I, myself, like to collect quotations. Here’s one I love from Dual Citizens

Some of them had done nothing, it seemed, but play the piano since they were four years old. They were like veal calves who’d spent their lives in cages, fattened to bursting with musical technique; they could barely walk on their underdeveloped legs, but their Chopin could make you cry.

I read Dual Citizens as a member of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury. Visit Buried in Print to read Marcie’s thoughts on the book, and you can follow all of our Giller shadowing at Kevin from Canada.

14 thoughts on “Giller Shortlist: Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin

  1. buriedinprint says:

    I really liked the parts about the piano teacher. It wasn’t a plotline that I expected to carry on as long as it did. It feels like a lot of piano teachers are resented and dispatched with rather quickly in fiction, but not here!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Because there didn’t seem to be another character who had that kind of role in the story, I feel like Ohlin was saying that it would have been entirely different for the two sisters had this relationship not taken hold. But they did find other relationships as adults, so maybe not?

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