A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Who is Elizabeth Greene? To me, she’s everything. I’ve always felt something was missing. And then I found out I had a sister I never knew existed. Elizabeth Greene: I had to meet her. My plan was to get to know her before telling her our secret. But this isn’t how I imagined it. I don’t feel in control any more. Liz has been looking at me strangely, asking awkward questions. Does she suspect something? But we were meant to find each other, so it will all work out in the end. I know it will. It has to.
I’ve always enjoyed the books I’ve read by Emily Barr, which can only be described as a unique mixture of chick-lit and gripping thriller – and in a way that blends very well indeed although it shouldn’t. Even though her plots can be utterly bizarre (and this one is definitely more bizarre than most), there’s something about the way she writes that keeps you glued to the page and wanting more.
Here we have two main characters: the unsuspecting Liz; and the calculating and really very insane Helen, whose distinctive voice we meet in the give-nothing-much-away blurb above. Each woman gives their version of the story in alternating sections, with the occasional piece from Mary, Helen’s long-suffering mother. Of the two protagonists, I thought Helen was actually the less interesting one, though she is madder. I became a little bored around the beginning with her life in France and she only began to settle for me as a character once she’d upped sticks and come to London to find Liz.
I also thought family life was portrayed very strangely – although of course families are odd indeed in reality. I wasn’t entirely convinced, especially as the denouement unfolds, that Helen’s family would have acted in quite such an apparently unconcerned manner when she was growing up and being … um … constantly strange. That section did make me snort in disbelief. I had a similar reaction near the start when Liz gets pregnant by means of a drunken evening with a transsexual about to become a proper woman:
Rosa prodded my naked body. I couldn’t even be bothered to be ashamed of it. There were parts of my stomach and thighs that I kept meaning to lose, but that meant nothing.
‘This is everything I’ve ever wanted,’ she said, pulling my left nipple hard between her finger and thumb. I winced. ‘See, I don’t care if it hurts, because you’ve got everything I should have had. You’ve seen me.’ She was dressed by now, ashamed of her hairless male body. She had only half undressed to start with.
It’s all so wonderfully unlikely, especially as poor Liz has just been dumped by her boyfriend who’s come out as gay. Does she not know that one traumatic incident with a bloke is a misfortune, but two looks like carelessness? As Wilde might well have said if he’d read this novel.
Not only that but at one point, the increasingly out-of-control Helen is busy getting naked and stoned with her boss every night even though they don’t actually quite have sex, and she’s so marvellously straightforward about it:
Matt liked me to sit there naked, in front of him. Sometimes he got me to lie down and snorted his coke off my body. I liked that. But he never actually tried to have sex with me, and part of me was relieved. Part of me was frustrated, but mostly I was glad. I was scared of the whole idea.
Really, my dears, I certainly never found this in any of my job descriptions, but hey I didn’t live in London for that long … But this is the incredible (word intended) joy of Barr. Because no matter how out-of-its-own-head the plotline or how potentially unlikeable (or realistic, depending on your point of view) the characters, you still have to read her. She has the gift of writing with ease and sheer stylishness and you simply can’t put her down. Dammit. Even though the bulk of the story is startlingly similar to Single White Female, there are enough differences and great plot twists to keep you deep in the world of the book. And anyway, as I’ve said, it’s not the plot that counts here. It’s the slow build-up of character and lifestyle, and the way they’re written that matters.
I must also say a word on behalf of Mary, the mother, who in the past walked away from her small baby in order to go travelling as she simply couldn’t bear motherhood. Here she is at the birth:
‘Sorry, baby,’ she whispered. ‘Mummy doesn’t love you. Try Daddy.’
Marvellous. What an eminently sensible woman: really, I would have liked to have had far more sections in her voice as to me she seemed much more interesting than either Helen or Liz but, in any case, her story certainly gave more depth and staying power to the overall themes of family and fulfilment, and highlighted how those two concepts might well clash.
The structure of this book is fabulous as well. The brief prologue, in Helen’s voice, begins where you might not imagine and is then beautifully rounded off during the epilogue, again in her voice, which brings back the tremendous sense of tension waiting just round the corner that apparently vanishes in the chick-lit style “proper” ending (at least for Liz). Oh how clever that is, and typical of Barr who always keeps you guessing, and guessing again. Whatever the plot, she’s definitely a writer I rate.
The Sisterhood by Emily Barr, Headline 2008, ISBN: 978-0-7553 3557 2
[Anne used to think she might want a sister but has now definitely gone off that idea. She has, of course, written about her own difficult fictional families.]