Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfield

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.
Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

The book takes its title from the notice that sister Vi posted on the girls' room when in fifth grade:
Population 2
Do NOT enter without permission

But that is what we as readers do in this novel - we enter sisterland. I am not a twin, but I am very close to my younger sister, and can identify with the push and pull of the relationship between Kate and Vi, although now my sister and I are adults we do not have the strains that Kate and Vi feel. 

The differences between Kate and Vi almost seem cliched - Kate is the conformist, Vi the rebel; Kate the thin one, Vi overweight; Kate married and a stay-at-home mother, Vi has just announced a lesbian relationship; and in particular Kate repressing her special powers, Vi embracing and celebrating her special powers. But in Sittenfield's hands the portrayals of the sisters are not cliched. Kate is the narrator of the piece and she is not a sympathetic character. She lacks any sense of self-awareness, unable to see how irrationally she behaves, how demanding and peevish she seems. Inevitably we see Vi through Kate's eyes and she too at times seems selfish and unaware. Although we do get the impression that Vi is the more interesting sister, but she never comes fully into focus. 

Given that the two sisters are meant to have psychic powers and are twins, it is interesting that Sittenfield does not give them the ability to read each other's minds, although at one point Kate does hear words spoken to Vi over earphones. Kate is so afraid that everything she dreams of or imagines is a prediction that she is jittery and a fussy mother. Rather than try and tune her powers, she decides to abandon them. The book seems to accept, as Kate does, that the powers do exist, and in that sense is magic realist.

The book might seem to have a plot driver in the question of whether Vi's predicted earthquake will materialize, but to my mind the plot really is about the relationship between the sisters and whether Kate will become more self-aware. The earthquake forecast is a medium for that. As the allotted time for the earthquake approaches, Sittenfield alternates the chapters between the present and accounts of significant events in the sisters' past. 

There is a lot of detailed realism in this book. The writer goes into detail about Kate's mundane life - the nappy changes, what's for lunch, etc. I know some readers really like that in a book, but I confess I don't, and I thought at times "Get on with it, already!" I would have liked more of a character arc too, particularly for Kate. But having set up Kate as the narrator, Sittenfield was trapped by the limitations of Kate's character, although part of the fun of the book was trying to work out what was really happening despite the narrator's inability to see it. 

Sisterland is not my favourite book of the year, but one I know a lot of people will enjoy. 

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments: