Consent by Annabel Lyon, published in 2020

There is so much packed into this very short novel, but it didn’t feel overwhelming. In fact, I sped through it, desperate to find out what would happen next. I don’t think it’s common to classify a literary novel as a page-turner, but Consent definitely hit the mark.

It piqued my interest because it’s about two sets of sisters. As the oldest of six girls, I know a little something about sister relationships, and was eager to see how these siblings were portrayed. Sara is a few years older than Mattie, and for a time, is Mattie’s full-time carer due to an intellectual disability. Mattie is sweet and gentle, but she is too trusting and easily misled. Jenny and Saskia are twins, and younger than Sara and Mattie. Jenny is wild and outgoing with hints of unexplored mental illness, while Saskia is the reliable sister, intellectual and quiet. As Saskia’s mother mysteriously tells her of the experiments the twins underwent as children, “You’re the control.”

The title of Consent plays into the dynamic of Jenny and Mattie’s relationships with men, how they are (possibly) manipulated, and their victimization. But what fascinated me more than the question of consent in those relationships was the matter of consent in the relationships between the sisters. Sara and Saskia are the responsible ones in their families, not because they are inherently responsible or because they want to be, but because their sisters can’t be. Their identities are linked to Jenny and Mattie, and their parents know them only in the context of their other daughters. Sara and Saskia (the novel’s narrators) did not ask to be who their sisters made them to be. This fact prompts them to consider who they would be if they didn’t have sisters who depended on them.

Anyone who has read The Story of O or Justine is familiar with sadomasochism, the power dynamics at play, and of course the subjugation of the female characters (Saskia is a literature student and references both novelists). She and Sara have witnessed the complications and advantages their less-able sisters have experienced as a result of mental illness and disability, and there is a sliver of something like jealousy in their disjointed and spare narration of this story. Perhaps it is that Mattie and Jenny had the freedom to be the submissive one, the one who could make bad decisions and have someone else fix it for them — a luxury that Sara and Saskia never had. But for how long should Sara and Saskia be expected to oblige?

And what of the mothers? Sara notes that “Mattie got all [their mother] had, the little she had.” But Sara wonders, if not for the neediness of Mattie, what could her mother have been. In an exchange with a friend, he tells Sara:

“I’m saying if she was nice to Mattie, yes, that was a good thing.”

“No matter the cost.”

“What cost?”

“The cost to – to her own identity. Who she could have been.”

Yes, who could she have been, without Mattie? Without daughters? Who could Sara and Saskia have been without their sisters? And is that ever an acceptable question to consider?

My one negative critique is that I had some difficulty following the timeline. The chapters (mostly) are marked with a month and year, which typically required me to turn back to the previous chapter to see when it took place in relation to the new chapter. Perhaps readers with better memories won’t have the same trouble.

This is a novel that left me with a lot to consider. Four stars.

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