Day 739: Sisters by a River

Cover for Sisters by a RiverBest Book of the Week!
In trying to characterize the tone and atmosphere of the autobiographical Sisters by a River, I have to say that it reminds me a bit of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, minus the murder. As reported in the introduction by Barbara Trapido, this novel did not fit the 40’s vogue for fond and touching memories of childhood, so it was not published for six years after Comyns began looking for a publisher. Comyns wrote it as a private recollection.

It is difficult to explain just how gripping this novel is. It is an unordered collection of fictionalized memories written by Barbara about the life of her family. Barbara and her sisters suffer a combination of abuse and neglect. Her father, known as Daddy, met her mother, called Mammy, when Mammy was a young child and arranged with her mother to marry her. She began having children when she was eighteen and only stopped after her sixth childbirth made her deaf. She also seems to be insane, periodically rampaging around or talking to invented lovers. Aside from cooking delicious meals, she completely neglects her children.

Granny is a dark and unpleasant presence. She does not allow anyone to clean her room, which is filthy, the floor caked with spilled substances. There she spends most of her time brewing up potions. When Daddy leaves the house, he has to lock up the billiard room to keep her out of the booze.

Daddy is prone to attacks of rage and cruelty. He throws Beatrix downstairs when she is a baby because she is crying. He blackens Mammy’s eye right before they are to host a big party. Yes, both of them are conscious of their social position. Mammy tells her semi-illiterate, poorly dressed, neglected daughters how cultured they are while Daddy takes pride in his hundreds of pairs of polished boots and shoes and takes three hours to prepare for a monthly meeting in town. Meanwhile, the girls’ teeth go bad and one governess after another is fired for some silly infringement or because her feet smell.

The oldest sister Mary has learned bullying from her father. She won’t allow the younger girls to read any of the books she likes, and she chooses what color clothes they may wear. Barbara must always wear brown, which she hates.

I could go on and on about this violent and eccentric family. But what really stands out about the book is its style. All of these events, and many that are worse, are related in a completely matter-of-fact way, no pathos or complaining. The writing style is that of a very young person, including many spelling errors, and this air of innocence and matter-of-face quality give the novel its charm. It’s hard to figure out how old the narrator is. The novel moves back and forth in time, and it seems that at her oldest, she is about sixteen. But there are references to her husband, so it’s hard to tell. My guess is the book was written at different ages.

If you care to try this novel, prepare yourself for something truly unconventional. It sounds dreadfully harrowing, I know, but it actually is not.

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11 thoughts on “Day 739: Sisters by a River

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings July 20, 2015 / 1:09 pm

    Hm, this does sound harrowing, so I would be curious to read this book to see how it can not be like that. I have Comyn’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead on my shelf, so maybe once I read that, I can read the autobiography next.

    • whatmeread July 20, 2015 / 1:13 pm

      It’s primarily the tone that makes it not harrowing.

  2. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock July 20, 2015 / 2:34 pm

    I loved this book – and I love the way Barbara Comyns writes – so I’m delighted that you thought so well of this book.

  3. Carolyn O July 21, 2015 / 8:32 am

    I’ve never heard of this author before–the book does sound interesting, like Dickens come to life.

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 8:36 am

      When I was making up my Classics Club list, I looked at the catalog for Virago Press with the goal of finding classic women authors to read that I hadn’t read before. I can’t remember if I found this one in their catalog or if it was on some other reader’s list and I looked it up, or what. Anyway, it’s really worth reading, a very unusual style. And in that regard, I have also started looking at the catalog of Persephone Press, which aims to reprint classic novels, mostly by women, mostly from the period of between the two world wars. So, some of those will be showing up soon. Well, some of them have already, the books by Dorothy Whipple being among them.

      • Carolyn O July 21, 2015 / 8:50 am

        Thanks–that’s really helpful! I have a couple Virago Press books, and maybe one from Persephone, but I haven’t made a concerted effort to find them.

  4. Naomi July 21, 2015 / 12:53 pm

    This sounds unusual. Now, I’m curious to know what her other books are like, as well.

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 1:02 pm

      So far I have read two. They were somewhat similar, although the other one wasn’t autobiographical and had sort of a supernatural element to it.

  5. Tredynas Days October 19, 2016 / 11:57 am

    via host Simon I found this and a couple more pieces on Sisters. I wrote about it recently myself, and had a slightly different take on the eccentric, distinctive narrative voice. Interesting piece; thanks.

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