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.
As ever, there’s very little in the way of new titles to trouble your credit card with in December. Probably a relief given the wear and tear of Christmas shopping. Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body sounds intriguing, though. It’s about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs, and it’s structured along the lines of a medical report. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb.
Lily Tuck’s Sisters explores a second wife’s obsession with her husband’s first marriage. ‘Will the narrator ever equal the first wife intellectually and sexually, or ever forget the betrayal that lies between them? And what of the secrets between her husband and the first wife, from which the second wife is excluded? The daring and precise build-up to an eerily wonderful denouement is a triumph of subtlety and surprise’ say the publishers enticingly. Shades of Rebecca here, maybe.
In January I read Our Magic Hour, an extraordinarily impressive novel by an Australian author called Jennifer Down. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Pulse Points is Down’s collection of short stories about people who ‘live in small dusty towns, glittering exotic cities and slow droll suburbs; they are mourners, survivors and perpetrators’ according to the publishers. Naturally, I’d have preferred a novel but if her short stories are only half as good as Our Magic Hour they’ll be a treat to savour.
Just one paperback to look out for – Roy Jacobsen’sThe Unseen, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year. It’s the story of Ingrid Barroy, born into the only family who live on a tiny Norwegian island. When she grows up, Ingrid is sent to the mainland amidst great change for her country then tragedy strikes and she must do what she can to protect her remote home. ‘In detailed, quietly gripping prose, writer Roy Jacobsen and translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw use a small canvas to tell a great, universal story’ say the Man Booker judges which sounds right up my street and all the more intriguing given that two translators worked on the novel.
That’s it for December, and for 2017 previews. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Already looking forward to what 2018 has to offer…