Chloe can do anything, if only her sister Ruby says so. She can lasso the moon, or run for miles, or hold her breath forever…or swim across the reservoir and bring back a souvenir from the town beneath the water. Just because Ruby says so. Except…when Chloe discovers the body of one of their friends out on the reservoir, it sets into motion a grave unraveling, and even Ruby may not be able to weave together the fraying threads.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would probably hate this book. Throughout the entire story, there’s a lingering, nagging feeling of “What the hell is going on?” that never fully resolves. Normally that drives me crazy- I like to know what’s going on, if not while it’s happening then at least later, when I can look back and lay it all out- but here’s the strange thing: it works. At any given point, we know just enough of what’s going on to question it. We never accept it blindly, we never simply let it pass us by. Every single moment adds to that nagging feeling, until it’s impossible to discern the reality to which we’re accustomed from the reality of Ruby’s invention.
Which is exactly how Chloe must feel.
Even though Chloe should be used to it- and in many ways, is- there’s always a piece of her that questions it as well. Chloe considers herself just a pale shadow of Ruby, “a pencil drawing of a photocopy of a Polaroid” of her older half-sister. All her life she’s gone along with Ruby, been captivated by the magic of her words into believing anything, but coming into the twilight experience of returning home, Chloe has two significant advantages.
-She knows Ruby, knows her in a way no one else does. She doesn’t always interpret that knowledge well; in many ways, she idolizes her sister, even when face to face with some severe flaws. But everyone else in town- with one notable exception- believes of Ruby whatever Ruby wants them to believe. They know only what she wants them to, sees her only how she wants them to, but Chloe sees more. Chloe is the only one who gets to see behind the sunglasses, as well as the only person who spends a lengthy period of time away from that magnetism.
-She knows what happened that night. Not all of it, not even enough of it, but more than anyone else except Ruby. Face to face with the one thing she knows for a fact is impossible, she has to question everything else, because not even Ruby’s way of twisting events can change what she knows happened.
At its heart, this is a story about sisters, about the ties that weave so closely between them that it can be hard to tell where one picks up and the other ends. It’s about love and protection, about wanting to do what’s best- if not always what’s right- about knowing that in the face of everything else, there is one person you can count on for anything and everything- even when those things seem impossible. Chloe isn’t blind to her sister’s faults, to her stranger behaviors, but she’s used to them. They’re simply part and parcel of who Ruby is. And despite her mercurial protections of Chloe, protections that frequently border on possessive, obsessive, and belittling, Ruby really would do anything for her.
Which, it turns out, is the heart of the problem.
The bond between these sisters, as well as the consequences, are at turns gripping, haunting, off-putting, disturbing, frightening, beautiful, elegant, raw, and so many other aspects that all merge together into a single, deceptively fragile-seeming concept that can only be called sisterhood. Amidst all the unreality that seeps through everything Ruby touches, that one thread is terrifyingly, beautifully real.
In addition to Ruby and Chloe, however, there’s another main player in this game: Olive. Fun fact time: as the water needs of New York City continued to grow, the decision was made to expand and create several massive resevoirs upstate, from which water could be piped down into the city. Not all of these areas were uninhabited (in fact, there were quite a few towns in the way) so the order was given to evacuate. Not everyone took that order with any intention of obeying it. Chloe and Ruby live on the edge of one of these reservoirs, where water ripples over the ghost of the town named Olive, where every man, woman, and child stayed put in their homes even as the horns and bells were going off to warn the valleys that the water was coming. Though its roads and houses stand far beneath the surface, Olive is every part as key and dynamic a player in events as the sisters.
Olive is, in every aspect of the word, haunting. It isn’t just the shiver that runs down your spine when you think of that many people sitting in their homes waiting to drown. It isn’t just the shudder that steals your breath when you imagine swimming over the watery grave of those same people. It’s that there’s something unexpectedly lovely about it too, the idea of loving your home that much, the feeling of community that no one left, even though they could. And according to Ruby, the folk of Olive are still alive. They look a little different now, and they breathe water instead of air, but they’re still there, going about their lives in the basin of the reservoir. What the people of Olive want, they get, and those who trespass over their waters are theirs.
Except, perhaps, if there’s a trick.
This isn’t a book that rivets you from page one. The first few chapters are leisurely affairs, full of beautiful prose that serves more to illustrate the nature of the sisters and of Olive than to wrap a hand around your heart and squeeze. It’s like serenely gliding across the surface of the reservoir, taking in the sights with the eyes of a neutral observer.
Until someone reaches up from Olive, wraps a cold, slimy hand around your ankle, and yanks you down into the depths and a welter of confusion where nothing can truly be trusted as real or not real. Then, long after you’ve finally clawed your way back to sunlight and broken through the surface with a heaving gasp, you know it hasn’t really let you go.
Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma, out in stores now.
Until next time~