Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Salon - The Sister

Time for another Sunday Salon! I'm feeling a bit more energetic and able to do thigns I've been meaning to do for a while, and that includes reviewing books. This is not one I have been reading for a month (I mentioned earlier that I'd been struggling to get through one, but it's one I decided not to review). I read this one in a week and am now going to write a review.

The Sister by Poppy Adams is a debut novel set in an eerie mansion in rural England. Ms. Adams does a great job of setting up a dark, creepy atmosphere for a story rife with mystery and puzzlement. Who is this woman, Virginia (the narrator)? Why has her sister Vivien not been home in fifty years? How did their parents die? Why is Ginny such a recluse? And what is going to happen as Vivi intrudes on Ginny's solitary existence, with her cheer and modern ways and little dog? Not one of these answers can be good.
I am fascinated by books with the "unreliable narrator." We as readers typically automatically trust the narrator unless things start happening to indicate we shouldn't. And they have to be pretty big things, really. I have tried to write "unreliable narrator" stories before, and often people don't get it if you're subtle. There have to be some grand signs.
Ginny gives a few signs, but a lot of them are stated. People avoid her. Kids in the town harass her occasionally because she's a hermit. She as an obsession with orderliness and clocks. But until Vivien starts telling her (and us) that there's something wrong with her, we aren't really going to get it. We do at the end, of course, when subtlety is thrown to the wind, but...somehow the ending seemed a little bit tacked on. It wasn't a crescendo or a climax; it was a novel building in one direction and then a very predictable-but-wanting-to-be-shocking ending.
There are some fascinating aspects to this book. I assume that Poppy Adams, a documentary filmmaker, has not studied lepidoptery (moths) but with the amount of detail in there, one would thinks she had a doctorate in it. In fact, there's a little too much. I kept thinking all the moths and details were going to be some kind of grand symbol, but it didn't work out that way. They were her obsession, but lots of people have obsessions. There are many people who actually obsess about bugs. I don't happen to like bugs, but the fact that they do doesn't make them crazy. So Ginny's entomology didn't really serve a bigger purpose. I know, I know, not everything in literature has to be a symbol or gateway to something deeper, but there was so much here about moths, I wanted it to do something.
I kept waiting for a big reveal about Ginny's condition. We get a big reveal about their parents, but while one of the central questions (why Vivien stayed away) is partly answered (unsatisfactorily, in my mind, since it didn't really involve Ginny, the protagonist), a bigger one (why she came back) remains forever a mystery.
There's a lot of good here. Ultimately, if you have spare time, I'd say read the book. Just don't break down any barriers to get to it.


S. Krishna said...

This sounds like one I'd like! I recently reviewed The House at Riverton, it has that same gothic mystery quality

jlshall said...

Well, the eerie mansion and "dark, creepy atmosphere" make it sound like my kind of tale. But all those bugs - maybe not so much. Interesting review, though.

Kathryn Maughan said...

Overall, I'd say it's a pretty good book. Pick it up if you've got some time.