Leia Birch, a 38-year-old graphic novelist, must tell her family that a stranger in a Batman costume impregnated her. She also has to watch after her niece while her stepsister tries to salvage her marriage, take care of her grandmother who has been masking dementia, and come up with a prequel to her popular comic book that she has no idea how to write. There’s a lot going on in Joshilyn Jackson’s eighth novel, “The Almost Sisters.”
The narrator’s announcement of her hard-to-explain pregnancy — she was drunk at a comics convention in Atlanta and doesn’t know the dad’s name — keeps getting derailed by the serious family issues including a heartbreaking illness and a case of marital deception.
But similarly distressing to Leia is the task of delivering a prelude to “Violence in Violent,” per a contract with Dark Horse Comics. Figuring out the origin story for her protagonist, Violence, a “sharp-toothed, purple, vigilante cannibal,” is problematic because Leia herself doesn’t fully understand how the creature sprung from her head. “She was simply a busty force with crazy eyes and silver thigh boots, acting out a bloody revenge fantasy that spoke to anyone who’d ever had their heart jerked out and stomped flat.” Leia’s and Violence’s lives parallel each other in abstract ways, providing insight into both their motivations.
Concern for her grandmother sends her to Birchville, the small, mostly segregated town founded by her ancestors. “Birchville, Alabama, has its own origin story, so entwined with my grandmother’s that there was no way to tell one without the other.” Her 90-year-old grandmother, Birchie, had been hiding her dementia from everyone but Wattie, her roommate and lifelong friend. Wattie, the daughter of the Birches’ late housekeeper – “there were folks at the church who could not seem to remember that Miss Wattie did not work for Birchie” – had been aiding Birchie’s secret by covering for her and whispering in her ear when she became confused.
After the duo sneaks a trunk out of the attic and crashes a rental car trying to hide its contents, Leia learns that the elderly friends, who look like a “matched set of salt and pepper shakers,” were hiding something potentially criminal in addition to Birchie’s declining mental faculties.
Writing about the contemporary South is tough because even the most honest and accurate depictions can make the region seems like a caricature of itself. Characters with names like Jeannie Ann are hard to take seriously, and Jackson sometimes uses familiar tropes: “Her voice had gone dangerously sweet. Sweet as icebox pie. Sweet as sugar tea.” But the Decatur author makes up for it with bold and quirky writing. Case in point: the vivid image she paints of a certain body part as six feet tall and “running across the church lawn on legs.”
That scenario happens in an early and catalytic scene, when Birchie’s dementia is revealed to the masses at the Baptist church’s Summer Kick-Off Fish Fry. Her meltdown is instigated by a change in tradition. The young new pastor has audaciously swapped out the usual menu item of fried catfish with steamed salmon. It’s a lighthearted enough premise that quickly turns tense and eerie, with Birchie emitting a “high-pitched crazy titter,” humping a table in front of 300 congregants and launching a “verbal wrecking ball” that smashes “two key church marriages.” It’s such a swift shifting of gears that it leaves the reader pleasingly, attentively on edge for the book’s remainder.
Race is a key, but cautiously approached, theme. A horrific revelation from the past, safely placed toward the book’s end, is preceded by reflections on how race still divides Birchville. At one point, Leia checks herself, questioning her own motivations, when her niece finds “Batman” on Facebook. Reckoning with the damning realization that she didn’t try to find the man herself, Leia wonders “if it was partly, even a little, because he was black. Had I bought into the stereotypes about black men and fatherhood and assumed he wouldn’t mind not knowing? I didn’t think so. God, I hoped not. But maybe, on a subconscious level, it was there.”
“The Almost Sisters,” a title that alludes to more than one relationship, is the kind of layered book one should consider reading twice. Not simply because it’s a vibrant, sharp and humorous read, brimming with relatable subplots, high-energy scenes and overt superhero references, but also because a second pass reveals subtle hints at the complex twist that shocks both the reader and Birchville’s townspeople alike. The emphasis on how someone’s “origin story” deeply stains his or her psyche is reminiscent of another Georgia author’s recent work, “The Guineveres” by Sarah Domet.
Over the course of the novel, most of Leia’s original comic book is described panel by panel, bringing the dark and compelling tale to life. The delicate relationship between her and her stepsister, Rachel, is revealed when Rachel accuses Leia of modeling one of the characters after her. Leia vehemently denies it, but after some consideration, she realizes that perhaps Rachel was right. Once all the family chaos dies down, Leia delivers the next installment – albeit with a different angle than she’d initially imagined. The new world she describes is “chock-full of monsters and lost children, race wars and superbeings.” “Violence in Violet” is the fictitious creation of a fictitious character, but it stands on its own enough that the reader may desire a real copy through which to leaf. ( Jackson has partnered with local artist Ross Boone to create a cover for the graphic novel. ) The author deftly succeeds in writing a book within a book, each one beautifully complementing the other.
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“The Almost Sisters”
By Joshilyn Jackson
352 pages, $26.99