For Chloe, it has always been her sister Ruby: Ruby, whose mere presence seems to make people want to please her however they can. Whatever Ruby says is law. When Ruby tells Chloe to swim across the reservoir, Ruby does it. But when she discovers the body of a classmate, Ruby and Chloe are separated. Two years later, Ruby reappears in Chloe’s life and convinces her to come back. Things are not as Chloe left them, though, and as she gets closer to the truth of what Ruby has done, she realizes that her bond with her sister might not ever be the same.
There’s an inherent problem in trying to review Nova Ren Suma’s beautiful, haunting book about the bond between two sisters: it’s so good and so complicated that I feel overwhelmed before I even begin. However, because I believe this book to be one of the best published this year as well as an important book in the genre of magical realism, I’ll do my best to review it. Here goes nothing.
The first thing that should strike readers about Suma’s story is how eerie it is. From the very first page, Chloe’s narration sets the scene of life in upstate New York, and readers can tell that something is a little off. This feeling grows slowly as the tension in the story builds. It’s a gnawing feeling in the pit of one’s stomach, and the uneasiness will be too much for some readers. This uneasiness is made more pronounced by the realization that Chloe is an extremely unreliable narrator.
Ruby is Chloe’s older sister, and it is clear that Chloe idolizes her. In her eyes, Ruby can do no wrong. The fact that Ruby has a sort of power over most people becomes clear early on, but what is interesting is to watch as some of the characters are able to shake her influence every once in a while. This doesn’t happen to Chloe, who seems unable to differentiate herself from her sister, no matter how detrimental Ruby’s influence over her is. Suma’s skillful characterization and writing allow the reader to know that Ruby is bad news, that the two girls relationship is completely screwed up without ever having Chloe actually acknowledge it. So yes, this story is creepy, and yes, readers should be uncomfortable with pretty much everything that occurs.
Much has been made of the magical realism genre, and it is my belief that this book is the epitome of it. Ruby’s slow-growing power over the town continually breaches the rules of the natural world and of the magical one as well. As the boundaries continue to expand and the rules change, Chloe (and the reader) has to continually adjust expectations and understanding of what is happening. Ruby’s power over life and death is both thrilling and unsettling. She is, in many ways, the ultimate subversion of a manic pixie dream girl: Ruby is what happens when that particular trope goes horribly wrong. This kind of writing takes serious skill, and it is clear that Suma has it in spades.
Suma’s writing is lyrical, hypnotic, and repetitive. The pacing of the plot is slow–and it is intentional. Everything about the story and Chloe’s narration is meant to create a surreal feeling. The world in which Ruby creates for Chloe isn’t quite right. The distortion that Chloe feels and sees upon her return to town is much like looking at an object under water: you can see it and identify it, but it’s a little wavy or stretched or the wrong color. I feel like I got a little lost in my simile there.
The problem with Suma’s novel is that it’s so complex and layered that some readers will find themselves frustrated by it. I’ve seen more than a few reviews where it’s clear that readers completely missed the point about the relationship between Ruby and Chloe, where they completely missed the fact that the novel is supposed to be weird. It’s okay that the book didn’t work for them. This is probably not a book for the extremely literal-minded crowd. But for those who love rich, controlled language and a fantastically understated horror story? This book is for them.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Dutton Juvenile: 2011. Library copy.