Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Sister by Poppy Adams

A debut book. This book is unique, very different from others I've read. I did enjoy it, and it did take me by surprise at the end of the book. To quote the first two lines of the book "It's ten to two in the afternoon and I've been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She's finally coming home, at sixty-six years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years." The story ostensibly takes place over 6 days, but is so full of flashbacks that it actually covers over 50 years.

Poppy Adams has put together a story told in the mind and perhaps faulty recollections of Virgina (Ginny), the older of two sisters. Ginny recalls the family as being happy and comfortable, but to her younger sister Vivien (Vivi) it appears the opposite. Ginny & Vivi are quite close until Vivi is serious hurt in a bad fall, which eventually is a catalyst for Vivi to move to London from the village where the family mansion was located. The book is a goldmine for anyone who has the least interest in lepidopterology (the study of moths & butterflies). Clive, the girls' father, is a renowned lepidologist and spends almost all his time involved in this, and trains Ginny to follow in his footsteps. It would appear the only constants in Ginny’s life, real or imagined, are time and moths. The whole story resembles a moth from cocoon to metamorphosis. Her attachment to time appears to me to be more symbolic.

There is something different about Ginny. She seems separated from life, or from living life. She has the ability to escape within herself to avoid learning about life or living in it. Her sister Vivi is the opposite. Ginny appears to be withdrawn, but it is much more than that. For a child witnessing it so young in her father’s lab, perhaps the innate cruelty of studying and experimenting with moths is one of the reasons Ginny does not really develop emotionally. But do we ever really know her? Does she know herself? Throughout most of the book I felt like I understood her “oddities”. The whole family seems to coddle Ginny, especially her mother Maude, who is her refuge. But eventually Maude is no longer able to handle the distancing of her husband and as Ginny gets more involved with her father’s work, she becomes more distant too. Maude is left virtually alone in the huge house as the others spend their time locked away in the lab or out hunting moths. This is a bad turning point for Maude and for Ginny. At this point the feel of the book also changes and the reader begins to realize that they quite possibly don't understand any of the characters. As Maude sinks deeper & deeper into her own nightmare world of depression and alcoholism, the whole family begins to fall apart. I began to think I didn't really know if anyone was as they seemed. Maude's questionable death only adds impetus to the disintegration of all their lives.

At the end of the book I am left with wondering just who was responsible for Maude's death. Everything turns around and I can only speculate. I think the important thing to remember in tying up the loose ends, is that the story is told from Ginny's mind. I think the symbolism is the only way to try to get at the truth. One of the few constants throughout the book is time, a brilliant, Hitchcock-type of background. I almost heard the ticking in the background! I couldn’t garner the answers from Ginny's mind, it functions in a radically different way. I am not even persuaded now in thinking back that she was involved with the research following Clive's demise at all. Even arthritic as she was, her mind tells her that she is a famous lepidopterist, so I can't see her letting the condition of the lab deteriorate to such a degree. She doesn't even seem to have known of its condition yet she was planning on showing her research to the entomologists. This would only make sense if she believed they would never be coming. I felt I was so deep into the mind of Ginny that I began to find it difficult to separate what is true and what is fantasy. Was she as brilliant as we have been led to believe? I don't know. At one point I thought she may have had the savant syndrome with autism, but her brilliance may have been in her own mind. And therein lies the paradox. Perhaps the author intended to leave questions unanswered but hinted at, to keep us trying to put our own slant on what has been happening all along.

The use of one clock in her room at the end of the book is again symbolic, she is in an orderly world and does not have to be connected to anyone, even Helen, who is there but not a threat A well-written book, but not at all easy to describe.

1 comment:

nightreader said...
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