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‘Sisters’ by Daisy Johnson ****

I have not yet read British author Daisy Johnson’s short story collection, Fen, but following on from how much I enjoyed her debut novel, Everything Under (review here), I could not resist picking up Sisters. Johnson is highly praised by her contemporaries, with Max Porter calling her ‘one of the best writers in this country’, and Karen Russell an ‘enchantress’.

Sisters is a slim novel, at just under 180 pages. However, it packs an awful lot in. It follows two protagonists, sisters July and September, who were born just ten months apart, and are inseparable. They have spent their childhoods in Oxford, but after an incident at school, their mother – who is ‘desperate for a fresh start’ – moves them to a secluded part of northern England. They are heading up ‘the bone of the country’ when the first chapter begins.

The family-owned house which they move into ‘has a troubled life of its own. Noises come from behind the walls. Lights flicker of their own accord. Sleep feels impossible, dreams are endless.’ In July’s first chapter, she comments: ‘This is the house we have come to. This is the house we have left to find. Beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea.’

Once they move, and adapt to the rhythms of their new locations, the relationship between fifteen-year-old July and sixteen-year-old September begins to shift. Much of their relationship is still rooted within their childhood; they continually play games like hide and seek with one another. Their mother, who writes and illustrates adventure stories for a living, is unreachable; she has ‘been this way, taciturn or silent, ever since what happened at school… She would speak only stray phrases to us, barely meeting our eyes. She is a different person in a recognisable body…’.

The novel is narrated largely from July’s perspective, and this focus on one sister worked very well. I enjoy Johnson’s writing, and it feels as though she really managed to get to the crux of her young protagonists, in all of their teenage complexity. Another of Johnson’s real strengths is the way in which she depicts the countryside; although beautiful, she shows that there is always an element of bleakness, of starkness, about it. Johnson paints things as they are, aware of their realism; for instance, when she writes: ‘The house is here. Squatting like a child by the small slate wall, the empty sheep field behind pitted with old excrement, thorn bushes tall as a person.’ She is able, in this manner, to capture the natural world in all of its wildness, and its untamed state.

Sisters is such a readable novel, which offers a couple of surprises along the way. There is something sinister about it, and the atmosphere builds as the story moves forward – and backward – in time. The novel is peppered with quite unsettling scenes; for instance, when July wakes to this: ‘Something is crouched on top of me as I sleep. I cannot open my eyes. There is breath on my face, hot, and the grind of what feels like fists on my chest… I can’t move, my arms and legs are stiff by my sides… There is a figure above me, bearing down, their face is almost recognisable but then there is darkness and they are gone.’ I even found the novel’s short poetic prologue rather chilling. It ends: ‘My sister is a forest on fire. // My sister is a sinking ship. // My sister is the last house on the street.’

Sisters is a novel about sisters, as the title suggests, but theirs is a complex and volatile kinship. The examination and exploration which Johnson presents of their relationship almost feels claustrophobic at times. There is not a great deal of plot within Sisters; rather, it is focused almost entirely upon its characters and their interactions. Regardless, Johnson manages to cover rather a lot of ground in this piece of domestic noir. There is a well-judged urgency which shows itself just when it needs to. Johnson is certainly an author to watch, and whilst I do not know if this novel will prove to be as memorable as Everything Under, I very much enjoyed the reading experience.

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The ‘Tin Toys’ Trilogy by Ursula Holden ****

The three novels which make up Ursula Holden’s ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ have been reprinted in a lovely edition by Virago. Holden, sadly a relatively forgotten author in the twenty first century, is heralded on its cover by fellow Virago published Molly Keane, who states that the ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ is ‘extraordinarily good’. Holden has been compared to both Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, and this alone makes her a perfect candidate for the Virago list. 9781844088270

Lisa Allardice, the author of the book’s introduction, tells us that the three sisters whom all three novels focus upon are rather different in their temperaments: ‘the eldest beautiful and mild-mannered, the middle grave and thoughtful, the youngest innocent and watchful’. It is, essentially, a coming of age trilogy, in which we see these three sisters grow and mature despite the adversity which surrounds them. ‘It is the archetypal fairy-tale set up,’ Allardice tells us, ‘three sisters and a wicked mother – and as in all fairy tales there is much darkness, randomness and cruelty’. Allardice’s introduction is very informative, but be warned – it does throw up a couple of spoilers from time to time.

The novels are set before, during and after the Second World War, and each is told from the perspective of or with its focus upon a certain sister. The first, Tin Toys, is told by lonely Ula, the youngest, Unicorn Sisters takes the perspective of the eldest, Bonnie, and The Bubble Garden is partially narrated by middle sister Tor.

In Tin Toys, the girls’ baby brother, Bruno, dies of exposure just weeks after his birth, and Ula is sent to Ireland with the family’s cook as a result. Ula is six years old when Tin Toys begins and, as one might expect, childish elements of life shine through in her story. She tells the reader, in retrospect, how she so enjoyed the dance classes of this troubled time: ‘I could be certain of happiness on Saturday mornings because of my dancing class… I hopped to Miss Dance’s playing and forgot that I had two older sisters and an awful brother wrapped in a shawl’. Ula’s narrative voice is engaging from the outset, and is filled throughout with a sense of childlike joy and hope. When meeting a new, mysterious girl named Lucy at her aforementioned class, she states: ‘We hadn’t spoken to each other but I thought she was spellbinding. I had never seen anyone touch their nose with their tongue’.

At home, Ula’s life is troubled. Following the death of their father and with a largely absent mother who flits in as and when she wishes, the girls are separated from one another, and Ula is largely brought up by her nurse. ‘I longed to be friends with my sisters,’ Ula tells us, ‘to share their sisterly world, but they neither needed nor wanted me’. Her only comfort in the dark world in which she inhabits is the kindly Irish cook, Maggie, who understands her situation: ‘Is it any wonder Ula likes it downstairs with me. She gets a laugh and a cuddle down here’. A sense of pity is struck for our protagonist at the first.

The entire trilogy, in fact, is filled with sadness – the absence of parents, the death of a sibling whom none of the sisters really knew, bullying, unfairness and growing understanding of their plight. Perhaps the saddest element of all is their mother’s lack of compassion: ‘She disliked children, she’d had them for him [her husband]. The boy was born, she’d not cared… She had accommodated three lost souls who cared for her children [in the guise of a governess, cook and nurse]. She had time now for herself’. Later on, after baby Bruno’s death, their mother returns to the house: ‘She had come for some clothes, she repeated. She had enrolled at a school of acting. Three children in Sussex wouldn’t prevent her… Nothing would stop her career’.

Much is battled against in Tin Toys, and the case is similar in Unicorn Sisters, in which the sisters are packed off to a second rate boarding school ‘out of reach of Hitler’s bombs… Mamma was relieved to be getting rid of us so conveniently. War was declared. We must go at once’. Mamma happily goes off to entertain the troops, sending the girls to boarding school a day early in the hope of getting rid of them. Here, they face challenges of monumental importance to such young girls, and are forced to grow up quite against their will. Again, in the last novel of the trilogy, A Bubble Garden the girls move over to Ireland with their mother and her new husband, a situation which throws up problems of its own.

With regard to the novels themselves, the first half of Tin Toys is incredibly strong, but it does seem to lose momentum somewhere towards the novel, and the situations which Holden introduces are far too convenient to be believed. Unicorn Sisters, Bonnie’s tale, is the strongest of the trilogy, and is a difficult book to put down. Bonnie’s narrative voice is the strongest of the three, and her maturity adds to the more wonderful elements of the book. A Bubble Garden is told partly from the perspective of Tor, along with a third person narrative perspective. As a novel, it is by far the weakest of the three, and does end on rather a tragic note. There seems to be far too much sadness crammed into its pages, and comes across as rather a pitiful and depressing end to the trilogy on the whole.

The characters in all three novels are not constant, and they are continually changing as a result of the circumstances which they find themselves in. Holden has clearly put a lot of thought into how her characters act and react in a whole host of different situations, and she seems to know their minds incredibly well. Although they seem realistic, very few of the characters are likeable. If you want a cheerful read, this is certainly not the book for you, but if you want to see the human psyche masterfully created in all its many guises, then this is perfect reading material.

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‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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