Our Little World by Karen Winn

Review by Walter Cummins

Our Little World is in several ways a deceptive novel, cleverly constructed. The opening chapters told from the perspective of pre-teen Bee—the nickname she prefers over her given Borka Kocsis—may be read as an example of middle grade anxiety. She broods that her year-younger sister, Audrina, is more attractive and more popular. She wonders if a certain boy, Max, likes her. She secretly pulls out her hair and disguises the damage with combovers.

But the reader knows much more than this narrating child from the adult Bee’s short opening prologue, devastating information the adolescent cannot know and that would have uprooted her existence if she had somehow known. But the reader is aware that Audrina is dead and that Bee will be haunted by visions of her sister. The novel opens with these words: “I see whispers of my dead sister. I see her when I am driving, through the fogged up window, her brown hair entangled in my windshield wipers.”

How and when Audrina does die is not revealed, the expectation of that event a tension in the novel’s plot, casting a grim shadow over all of Bee’s concerns, a shadow seen only by the reader, yet an event that will transform the girl’s future.

It’s not quite accurate to say that Bee as narrator doesn’t know. In the opening paragraph of Chapter One she is aware of two dead girls, but the Bee that tells the story quicky retreats into her twelve-year-old sensibility and awareness, revealing no more than she knew from day to day at the time, her adult self finally emerging in the final chapters.

The loss of a sibling is just one of the dark events of the novel, as Bee becomes initiated into the tragic sense of existence that minimizes the childhood concerns behind her hairpulling, eventually overwhelmed by the vision of her sister’s tangled brown strands.

Early in the novel, four-year-old Sally, the little girl who lives across the street, disappears during a day at a nearby lake, where her mother, brother (Bee’s Max), Audrina and Bee were present. The details of Sally’s fate, like Audrina’s, is as unknown to the reader as it is to the novel’s characters; that is, unknown until the final chapters, with a full explanation not revealed until years later. However, the Bee who opens Chapter One reveals that Sally is the second dead girl, but then becomes one of the townspeople who pends in uncertainty for several years

A Hungarian proverb from a thin book Bee discovers on a bookshelf and has translated by her father, who emigrated when young, captures the reality at the heart of the novel: “Even a white lily can cast a black shadow.” Bee’s initial reaction is to find the proverb funny, but as she broods on it over the years comes to distinguish “the façade you show the world, and what’s really lying beneath.”

The events of Bee’s world reveal that complexity. Beyond tragic deaths, she witnesses the weaknesses of adults and the inability to cope by some, including her father, who becomes a hollow man after Audrina’s death. Yet her mother survives by creating a successful business called Audrina’s Gifts, honoring the memory of that daughter with pretty gift baskets that eventually take over a shop in town and become an internet presence. Bee finds her own career by working with her mother. The irony stings.

At the end of the novel, Bee is an adult, her understanding that of a wife and a mother of her own two daughters, through whom she hopes to fulfill the relationship she didn’t have with her own sister.

Our Little World is not a bleak novel despite its sadness. The lily of the proverb still maintains its white appeal. Yet, though Bee’s life seems fulfilled, she cannot escape the conflicting memories of the tense childhood relationship with Audrina, “The pain—but then also the beauty.”