Dual Citizens, the third novel by Alix Ohlin, follows sisters Lark and Robin from childhood to adulthood. The sisters’ Montreal upbringing is defined by their disengaged mother—for whom neglectful seems too strong a descriptor, as it implies an active failure to care, rather than her intense nonchalance—and their commitment to each other. When their mother, Marianne, checks out after the death of Robin’s father, Lark begins to assume nearly full-time care of toddler Robin. “I decided,” she says, “that she belonged to me.”
Lark, who narrates the novel, is smart, resourceful, and desperate for routine. She scrapes together cash to buy a pizza for dinner every Wednesday to create a comforting pattern. She feeds her baby sister factory-reject digestive biscuits brought home from her mother’s job. She avoids conflict and never speaks up. Reflecting on her stepfather’s apparent resentment, she says, “a child who knows she is disliked can acquire the skill of invisibility.”
On the other hand, Robin sparks generosity and warmth from strangers and authority figures. Lark remembers:
Robin’s teachers praised her, cast her in plays, and sent notes home suggesting singing lessons, because her voice was so lovely. I was the better student, often placing at the top of my class, but struck silent by shyness, and throughout elementary school I don’t think I ever once raised my hand. Sometimes my teacher would turn around and seem surprised I was even in the room, and when this happened I wasn’t upset but gratified. . . . I was proud of Robin and not at all jealous.
Lark’s world is quiet, softly lit. Accustomed as she is to being both excellent and ignored, college at a small American school is a reprieve, where she can continue to be both, surrounded by fellow “introverts, male and female, who blushed when they raised their hands.” Relieved of the familial responsibilities she held in Canada, Lark begins a long streak of passivity, allowing things to simply happen both around and to her. When a garrulous senior, Gordon, shows interest, she simply makes space for him in her life. “I was enjoying myself enormously,” she says of kissing him for the first time. “I didn't have to worry about not knowing what to do. His certainty, I thought, would protect us both.” This turns out to be untrue, and Lark is, for a time, quite downtrodden by this relationship’s fate. This willingness to be swept along in the tide of other people’s opinions is a hallmark of Lark’s behavior, with the exception of two pivotal moments in the novel when she is, suddenly and uncharacteristically, willing to sacrifice nearly all her life’s trappings for a singular, personal wish. In these moments, Ohlin allows her characters to transcend the roles their circumstances have carved out for them.
Ohlin’s characters are compelling and subtle, as is the world they inhabit. They evolve but remain very much themselves. For Lark, this means the impulse to care for Robin is constant and life without her is brief. Teenage Robin soon joins her sister, fleeing unwanted attention from their mother’s new husband. (A theme: If Lark’s life suffers as the result of too little attention, Robin is plagued by too much). Lark rents a house and becomes her sister’s legal guardian. Living together, they improve and surprise each other. Robin, unimpeachably herself, allows Lark to form an identity and relationships she isn’t quite able to make on her own.
The prose in Dual Citizens is spare and thoughtful, like Lark herself. Ohlin’s style resists melodrama and instead imbues moments with emotional gravity using the simple weight of Lark’s testimony. Of the intimacy, if not romance, of her relationship with Wheelock, a notable documentary filmmaker who is first her mentor, then employer, then life partner, she says: “We were less a couple than a unit of force. We didn’t date; we didn’t eat in restaurants or go to the same movies. But we lived and worked together, we breathed the same air, and we reached for each other when he needed it, in his bed or mine.” Or when she begins to ache fiercely for motherhood, a desire that upends her adult life: “It was the babies that wrecked me.” It could be said that Ohlin chooses to portray too large a swath of life in this novel (in one instance, she glosses over three years with a single sentence). I’d argue, though, that the novel is made in these small moments of sparkling clarity, where the affection a reader feels for these achingly flawed and lifelike characters bumps up against Ohlin’s clear-headed and honest depictions of their struggle.
Dual Citizens is a gentle and moving exploration of what bonds us to those we love and the evolving strength or tenuousness of those bonds. The sisters wane in and out of each other’s lives, loving men and their careers and wild animals in the spaces between their love for one another. Ohlin’s epigraph includes a few lines from Nancy Willard’s poem, “Swimming Lessons:”
My heart is not afraid of deep water.
It is wearing its life vest,
that invisible garment of love
and trust, and it tells you this story
I always wonder: to what does the last “it” refer? Who tells the story—the heart, or the life vest? Loving others is not easy for the girls, or even the women they become, in this book. They are buoyed over the deep water of their losses and devastating joys by their unassailable bonds, their invisible garments of love and trust. This is their story, entrusted to us via Ohlin’s vast emotional intelligence and illuminating, unassuming prose.