Aren’t We Sisters? put me in a bit of a quandary. The author contacted me asking if I would review her novel, not an unusual experience as I’m sure fellow book bloggers know only too well. Usually, I politely decline but she’d heard of me through a mutual acquaintance whose opinion I trust and I’d enjoyed her Orange Prize longlisted Peripheral Vision, still on my shelves which says a great deal given the overcrowding issue. So I said ‘yes’ then looked it up and saw the cover. Not my style, I thought, and after long years of reading unappealing books for work I’d vowed not to do that with this blog. What to do? Well, read it for a start and I wouldn’t have written this post if I hadn’t enjoyed it enough to recommend it to you. Phew!
Set not long after the First World War, it opens with Lettie Quick. Proud proselytiser of contraception, she’s a nurse working for Marie Stopes whose work is widely regarded as that of the devil. Lettie is smart, sharp and likes the good things in life but her judgement in men is poor. She knows it’s time to ditch her latest and when she spots a photograph of her childhood home town she decides to set up shop there. She’s soon ensconced with Norah – genteelly poor, virginal and completely ignorant of anything remotely sexual despite her thirty-six years – and not long afterwards has found herself another unsuitable man: Dr Philip Hayward, married, comfortably confident in his entitlement, ‘good at a party, good in a shipwreck’. Lettie has a sideline in discreetly delivering the children of expectant mothers who find themselves in embarrassing situations. Soon she has a rather inconvenient customer in Rae, a movie starlet installed in a crumbling old mansion, once an orphanage. Rae’s story intertwines with Lettie’s and Norah’s in what soon becomes a novel full of secrets and lies.
It took me a little while to get into this book, not because it has a slow start but because it’s busy with storylines running through its often very short chapters. Once I’d got those straight I found it quite gripping, and all the more so as the tension ratchets up. Wrapped up in what becomes a page-turning thriller is a deep concern about women’s reproductive health and sexual ignorance. For Lettie, who knows from bitter experience that it’s so rarely the case, every child should be a planned child. For Norah, even the basic mechanics of sex are a mystery. And for Rae, childbirth and how it can possibly work, is not something to be thought about no matter how imminent the birth of her baby. It’s very much about women – male characters are thin on the ground and, with two honourable exceptions, nasty or clueless. This may sound a little worthy but Ferguson’s skill and clever plotting is such that her novel is completely absorbing. Not a great cover – at least for me – but a brilliant title which proves to have a multitude of interpretations and answers.Those of you already acquainted with Silkhampton will know that this is a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter but although there are clearly many references to characters in the first novel they’re handled so deftly that you don’t need to have read it to enjoy this one. If Aren’t We Sisters? is anything to go by, adapted for TV they’d both fill the Sunday night drama slot beautifully.
There’s particular scene in Aren’t We Sisters? that brought to mind Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work, a fine novel much overlooked last year. It explores a very different present day dilemma through the experiences of an obstetrician who performs abortions – legally, of course. I’m sure Lettie would have approved despite the ethical questions it poses. How far things have progressed in the years since Marie Stopes was roundly abused on the streets of London.