Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Sister.
When two sisters reunite after fifty years, one might expect a few moments of intense confrontation - scores set to rest, a final peace with the past, old ghosts retired. But in this provocative psychological thriller, the reunion is permeated with menace, an eerie role-reversal of the sisters in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Certainly Ginny, the steadfast older sister who still inhabits the once-stately Victorian mansion in the Dorset countryside, Bulburrrow Court, is curious why Vivian has chosen to return after so long, ostensibly to spend their final days together.
The once-proud mansion, filled with the family detritus of generations, valuable furniture, antiques, mementos, decades of photographs and priceless collectibles, is also home to an extensive collection of scientific paraphernalia. Clive, the sibling’s father, devotes years to the precise study of moths and butterflies, while his gregarious wife, Maud, sees to the social aspects of family life.
The lively heart of the family, Maud is dedicated to encouraging social contacts, readily agreeable when Vivi announces her plans to leave home and study in London. Ginny, Clive’s best student, remains at home, absorbed in her father’s passion for lepidoptery. Eventually even Maud cannot survive the stifling atmosphere that builds around her, withdrawing day by day into her own despair and rage.
When Maud dies of a fall down the cellar steps, it is Ginny who holds things together, remaining even after Clive slides into dementia. Now Vivi is coming, and Ginny cannot imagine what this meeting will be like. Ironically, neither sister has really changed but simply adapted to circumstances. After a bout of laughter when they acknowledge they have turned into old ladies, the women slip easily into their former roles, the troubled past engulfing them, the ancient house reverberating with loss, disappointment and envy: “Vivian walked into my head and littered it with doubt and anger and turbulence.”
Ginny is the narrator of the piece, and it is through her perspective that we view the sisters’ childhood years: protective elder sister, the vivacious younger one who refuses to be cowed by the world. One leaves and one stays. Through Ginny’s memories, we learn the exacting price of her sacrifice, the shadowed thoughts that have shaped Ginny’s approach to life and the tragedy that strikes with Maud’s death.
Adept at manipulation and fabrication, Ginny’s passive-aggressive skills are sharpened by responsibility and solitude, yet she is stymied by Vivi’s penchant for brutal honesty. In the subtle threads that bind these characters in a tight cocoon, the past rises up, demanding its due.
The more scientific chapters, while necessary to comprehend the evolution of Ginny’s personality (“I see the inequity of life, the immorality of nature”), are more difficult to digest. Still, the author builds a psychological tension that hums with menace, a brilliant portrayal of twisted memories and dishonesty exposed in the light of day in a truly disturbing denouement.