Thuli and Sindi are twins who were once so close they climbed into each other’s dreams. They have a subtly magical connection that no one else sees. But now they wander, homeless and lost, following the highways of an alternative, slightly alien Joburg. Several years before, something came between them when an uncle they didn’t know existed came to visit with news of their dying grandmother. He set in motion a series of revelations and events that mangled the twins’ close relationship. The narrative alternates between the two timelines: Thuli narrates a surreal present-day story, while Sindi takes us back to the preceding years when everything went so disturbingly wrong.
Sister-Sister takes place in an unspecified near-future South Africa, after “the petrol car amnesty, when everyone was meant to change to electric” (17). Thuli and Sindi were born the day before the change, which the newspapers called “The Dawn of Fresh New Era” (17). The girls’ mother kept the newspaper clipping, and for a while the twins thought that they were the “new dawn” the article referred to.
The truth is harsher than the simple shattering of childhood beliefs. Thuli and Sindi might have been born into a changing world, but that world was always out of their reach. They grew up in a township and their mother would never have been able to afford a car. When they take public transport it’s in illegal “b-diesel junks” where they are packed in tightly with other passengers. The man who rents their tiny house out to them also makes a living converting the old cooking oil from a fried-chicken franchise into fuel.
It’s interesting to note that this often makes the novel feel as if it were in the postapocalyptic or dystopian genre, even thought it isn’t. The poverty of life in a township is in itself a kind of real-world dystopia. Then, when they’re homeless, the twins exist outside of mainstream society and encounter sinister underground communities.
In addition, their surroundings are always filled with the imagery of broken, dead or discarded things. When we first see Sindi, she’s been sleeping “in a wreck at the side of the road […] on the only seat that hasn’t been ripped out to find a new life as somebody’s couch” (13). Later, she hungrily devours dog food pellets that “crunch like chicken bones in her teeth” (23). Not only does the idea of eating dry dog food come as a sad shock, but the fact that Thuli’s reference for crunchiness is “chicken bones” is telling. Similarly, I find it unnerving when she says “I can almost taste the sweetness of her sweat on my tongue, a faint whiff like roadkilled dogs baking in the sun” (41). It says a lot about the twins’ lives.
Everywhere they go they find rubbish, wrecked cars, and dilapidated buildings; signs of poverty and neglect. Lost souls wander seemingly endless roads, and the threat of danger is always present. The story of a classmate who was raped and killed hovers over them. Even at home the twins risk getting beaten by their violent mother. When visiting the village of their birth to see their dying grandmother, they find it deserted because of the AIDS epidemic, and vultures feed on dead livestock. Grim as this all is, Rachel Zadok’s incredible writing gives the story an eerie, monstrous kind of beauty, which is often evoked by the folklore woven into the tale. It alternates between feeling fantastical and disturbingly real.
However, it’s worth nothing that this isn’t set in an overtly fantastical or science fictional world, or at least not the kind of world you normally associate with sff. The only major differences from real-world SA are the ban on electric cars, and the unbearably hot weather (presumably due to climate change). Mention is made of abandoned houses, although the novel doesn’t really get into the reasons for this. Otherwise, it’s a lot like South Africa today, in terms of both poverty and affluence. The twins watch people driving to work. They gaze through steel bars at the safe, gated communities where they will never live. There are “crazies” wandering the highways on foot, and a friend who read the book with me says she instantly recognised them as a standard feature of Joburg’s freeways.
The plot fits perfectly with this setting. Rather than being able to grow and blossom, the young twins are caught up in a dire story over which they have little control. Often, when they’re able to make decisions, they’re bad or hopeless decisions. When homeless, the focus is on basic survival. In the earlier narrtive, they become the victims of family drama and poisonous traditional or religious beliefs. In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Zadok said that her “fascination with belief systems and how they affect cultures and the individual” was what most likely inspired Sister-Sister, and indeed issues of belief come up again and again.
The girls’ mother left her village partly because of the stigma associated with twins, who are believed to be bad luck. When they return, the village’s desolation (caused by HIV/AIDS) is blamed on the twins. Not that they bear the burden equally – because Sindi has a stutter and seldom speaks to anyone except Thuli, she is often frowned upon while her friendly sister is favoured. This in turn affects Sindi’s beliefs about herself and her sister in ways that divide them and drive the plot forward. Belief in this context is never abstract: it is manifested in vivid, prophetic dreams, in the ways the sisters connect with each other or perceive their world, and in the actions the characters choose to take.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot because it’s better to watch it unfold. That said, it can be a difficult novel to get into. Thuli’s sections of narrative are surreal because dream and memory aren’t always easily distinguished from reality. The world itself might also take some getting used to. Because I’m the kind of pendantic reader who stalls or flips back and forth between the pages if I don’t know exactly what’s going on, it took me about a week to get through Part One, which is only fifty-five pages long. But if you find it similarly difficult, just hang in there. Sindi’s narrative is more straightfoward and I flew through Part Two in less than a day. It’s also worth keeping in mind that when Thuli starts the story, she is hiding something important from herself and the reader. She tells us, sadly, that “remembering’s hard. The world’s an ugly place and memories aren’t something to unwrap like birthday presents” (63).
It makes sense, then, that the novel is slow to reveal its secrets, even the ones you might have already guessed at. Not that figuring them out on your own spoils the story, because it’s just like Thuli says – the world is ugly and these memories aren’t a delight to uncover. Even though I soon figured out the gist of what happened to the twins, that knowledge never lessened the impact of events. I knew what was coming, but I was still apprehensive about seeing it happen.
Admittedly, if I had known exactly what this story was about, I might not have read it. Child abuse, poverty, AIDS, homelessness – the novel features all of these things and I normally shy away from such harrowing topics unless I’ve braced myself to deal with them. However, Zadok handles the story with such grace and creativity that the novel can be a wonderful read without ever detracting from the seriousness of its subject matter.
I also think that the speculative aspects were crucial, not only to my enjoyment but to the novel as a whole. By setting the story in an alternative/future South Africa that seems postapocalyptic or dystopian but isn’t, Zadok evokes the otherworldly reality of poverty and homelessness. Similarly, the story’s fantastical elements give it a dreamy quality that often serve to detach Thuli and Sindi from their world, as if they’re moving within an interstitial space where they can never get a grip on reality or be fully in control. The fantastical also just makes the story incredibly beautiful and haunting. Sister-Sister is the kind of book that gets me excited about South African sff not only because it was a good read but because it explores the ways in which writers can use fantasy to tell South African stories.