Frail Sister reviewed at The Paris Review Daily: “Symphonies in Matchboxes”

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March 22nd, 2019

(Review) Frail Sister


Restoring a Family Ghost


Originally published December 19, 2018

Some months ago, I came across a smattering of random family photographs at my parents’ house. The house had experienced some flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and the pictures, having been rather unsentimentally stored in the garage, were damaged—not terribly, but enough to make them brittle, to make them seem older than they were, to make them somehow strange, like daguerreotypes sold at flea markets. In the pile I found a very old group photo: my tiny maternal grandfather plopped on his mother’s lap, surrounded by people who must have been family but whose identities now seemed irrevocably lost. My mother held the fraying sepia image and lamented not knowing, the family history mostly a blank she could not fill in, the details lost to war and displacement, to evacuation and emigration, to the banalities of everyday life that make it impossible to keep track of the everyday banalities that eventually become history.

But history, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so we make do; we make up. We plot against the blank spaces. Frail Sister, Karen Green’s genre-transcendent new book, is just this sort of plotting against: a collage-memoir-epistolary found object willed into the story of a life otherwise lost. Virginia Woolf famously invented Judith Shakespeare, doomed sister of William and a woman of equal talents and missing opportunities, who—abandoned, pregnant, fallen—dies by suicide. Green reanimates her Aunt Constance, a ghost in the family archive. Working with old photos, vintage postcards, stationary, sheet music, newspaper clippings, faded cocktail menus, ration books, military documents, and aerial maps, Green combines and reworks, adding text in snippets and bursts, until—imperceptibly—a story coalesces. In an interview with Art in America, Green describes the book as “an old-fashioned mystery,” hidden in a graphic novel, a memoir, an art book, a biography—though she is adamant that Frail Sister is none of these. I came to think of the work as an immersion, a piece of participatory theater, a way of getting lost among the artifacts of a civilization that eventually shows itself to have been ours all along.

Like most good stories, the tale Frail Sister tells is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. At its center is Constance “Connie” Gale, a musical prodigy and born performer. As children during the Great Depression, Connie and her sister are put to work dancing and singing to support their family. Eventually, Connie joins the USO, goes to Italy, and witnesses the ravages of World War II. Men fall in love with her and send her letters, then die fighting. Connie forwards this correspondence to her sister (who, in remaining silent and nameless, serves as a placeholder for the reader), adds comments, makes fun of her more hapless admirers, and laments those she cared for (“They wouldn’t let me marry him because I was seventeen when he went away. I thought I was a widow in some way”). Sometimes she doubts herself. “You would faint if you saw the state of me and my things,” she types over an image of bombed ruins, “but I am alas still a girl … which in wartime means still pretty.” Sometimes she gestures at the intersection of large-scale violence and intimate violations. Over a photograph of a warplane raining bombs: “After his kisses and after his slaps, the same chorus: look what you made me do look what you made me do.” As war’s end nears, she scribbles, “War has swords / Love has darts / War breaks heads / Love breaks hearts.”

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