By Tina Jordan
Updated July 06, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

”It is fruitless to speculate upon an alternative version of Catherine, a Catherine free of schizophrenia, for schizophrenia is not just what she was, it’s who she was,” writes Mary Loudon of her older sister, dead at 47 of breast cancer. Catherine was long estranged from the family — ”schizophrenia locked [her] in and it locked us out” — and even told the hospital where she died that she had no next of kin. But Loudon realizes, belatedly, that she would have liked to know her elusive sister. In Relative Stranger‘s crisp prose, she pieces together Catherine’s missing years, visiting her doctor, her disheveled apartment, her care worker. After a trip to the hospital mortuary, where she holds Catherine’s frozen hand, she goes to the oncology ward where her sister died. It’s there that she receives the shock of her lifetime: ”…we knew [her] as Stevie,” a nurse, Jo, tells her. ”She was very insistent that she was a man.” Loudon’s book is a moving and loving testament to a messy, complicated life. A-