Sisters by Lily Tuck: A tale of obsession

It took me a mere ninety minutes to read Lily Tuck’s Sisters which might lead you to think it’s a slight, inconsequential piece of fiction but that’s far from the case. A sharp psychological study of obsession with a neat sting in its tail, it’s completely riveting.

Our unnamed narrator is married to a man with whom she started an affair after meeting him at a dinner party his first wife chose not to attend. They’ve been married for some time, long enough for her to have seen her stepson from early teenage years through to graduation and help her stepdaughter choose her wedding dress. She’s obsessed with his first wife: taking her stepson’s text book across town to get a glimpse of her apartment; calling her on the phone, then hanging up; researching her old piano teacher. How happy was this woman whose photograph she sees every day? What is her life-like now? How did she feel about burying her musical talent in housewifery? Was she better in bed? A litany of speculation preoccupies our narrator about her predecessor, so different from herself.

Tuck’s novella is made up of a series of short fragments, often just a few lines occupying the entire page.  A great deal is left unsaid and yet a picture emerges of a woman caught up in an obsession, at once unsettling and understandable. The writing is pinpoint sharp, the depth of obsession beautifully conveyed:

In the photo of her pushing the baby carriage down Avenue Foch in Paris, it was hard to tell – even with a magnifying glass – whether she looked happy.

Tuck’s ability to convey characters while saying barely anything about them is remarkable. The two wives emerge as far more interesting than their self-absorbed, insensitive husband. The connection our narrator yearns for with his first wife far deeper than the one she shares with him. This is such an elegant, quietly devastating piece of fiction. Inevitably, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind and is given a polite nod by our narrator:

I dreamed – not that I went back to Manderley – that I was in a big city like Calcutta or Bombay in India.

I’ve been left wanting to read as many of Tuck’s novels I can get my hands on.

16 thoughts on “Sisters by Lily Tuck: A tale of obsession”

  1. I couldn’t get on with the one Tuck novel I tried, The Double Life of Liliane, but this sounds more appealing. The other one of her books I’ve always been curious about is The News from Paraguay, about the Irish courtesan who ended up mistress to the dictator of Paraguay (Anne Enright has also written a novel about her).

      1. The News from Paraguay was recommended to me at some point as well. She does sound like the kind of author one could become obsessed with reading. The style of this one seems a little like Mr. and Mrs. Bridge-ish, which appeals to me as well.

        1. I haven’t come across The News from Paraguay but you’re the second person to mention it. I must seek it out. Sisters is fragmented in the same manner as the wonderful Mr and Mrs Bridge but much sharper. Highly recommend it.

  2. This sounds so intriguing… I’m trying to limit the number of books I add to the list (last year’s ‘list’ was epic) but I’m sure I can spare ninety minutes! 😉

  3. I totally agree! It’s such a brisk, powerful novel. And I like how you connect it to Rebecca – I hadn’t thought of that. Great review!

    1. Thank you, Eric. Such a gripping novel! I love it when authors give their literary influences a polite nod. Amanda Craig did it to Cold Comfort Farm in The Lie of the Land.

  4. Sometimes short is a benefit with a book, particularly if the writer is creating inference through the unsaid. It sounds like this writer has accomplished a great deal in this short book. Interesting review.

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