The House of Seven Sisters by Dutch writer Elle Eggels makes me wish
I had sisters. Eggels' is such a lively, domestic novel. Set in the
Netherlands in the early to mid-20th century, it centers on the lives of
seven sisters who live without a mother or father, mostly together in
the same house, for the course of about thirty years. The book's narrator is
a child, the daughter of the oldest sister, Martha.
The sisters run a bakery in a small town, and their roles within the
bakery shift and change. In fact, the entire novel shifts back and
forth between episodes in the lives of the various sisters. At times,
this is confusing and I found myself wishing for a group photo or a
genealogical tree. By the novel's end, two of the sisters have died and
the narrator has married, had her own son and gone to visit Mexico,
where the novelist once lived.
The sisters perform all the appropriate domestic duties of women from
their era. Most of them bake, taking their loaves and rolls
on the road by horse carriage and, finally, by van. They also embroider,
they make dresses, they fill dowry chests, they cook elaborate meals.
They love to drink gin and tell stories in the evening. Theirs is a
matriarchal household; at a certain point, yet another woman with no
children, Oma, comes to join them. Toward the end of the tale, their father's second wife joins them, but this
relationship ends up in disaster.
The women are strong, quixotic and opinionated. For example,"She
[Martha] felt more useless than stale bread... at least that was still
good enough for pigs." When the narrator goes to a preschool, which
she hates because she has to get her hands dirty working with clay, she
reflects, "I would gain access to a new science that would allow me to
transcend myself. Such a thing could only be possible through the
mediation of a nun, because in my eyes nuns were extraterrestrials."
Despite her attitude, the family remains devout, making many confessions
for transgressions along their way.
Various husbands, lovers and male friends come and go, but few stay for
long. Some die; some the women leave. The strongest connections
in this novel are between the sisters.
The language of the translated novel is delightful. The novel sometimes
reads like a fairy tale; it has been compared to magic surrealism such
as works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Laura Esquivel. Vivid dreams and
appearances of white-clothed female apparitions are common.
A little gem of a novel, quaint and loving, it portrays a vivid
picture of a large family living in Europe at a certain time in history.
Still, keeping the characters' stories and relationships straight
remains a bit of a trial.