Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review: Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld


Curtis Sittenfeld 

Doubleday, 2013

For identical twins, Kate and Violet are about as unlike as two peas from the same pod can be. Except in one respect - they share a hidden gift they call 'the Senses', a special kind of intuition that can allow them to see things that are yet to come. After Kate inadvertently reveals their secret when they are thirteen years old, they are set on diverging paths into their adult lives.

Twenty years later Kate is a suburban housewife who suppresses her premonitions in the hope of leading a normal family life, while Violet lives alone and works as a psychic medium. Then one day Violet ignites a media storm by predicting a major earthquake in the St Louis area where they live.

As the day Violet has announced for the earthquake draws nearer, the sisters must grapple with the legacy of the past, the confusion of the present, and the unsettling glimpses they both have of the future.

Sittenfeld is one of my favourite authors; an author whose books are immediately placed on my TBR list, whatever the subject, whose books I am constantly recommending to other people, who is guaranteed to restore my faith in reading within an opening page. Sisterland focuses on a pair of twins, Violet and Kate (formerly Daisy), who as children had some sort of psychic awareness - what they refer to as 'senses'.

As adults, Violet has embraced her psychic abilities, and lives a somewhat unconventional life, particularly next to Kate. Kate is married with two young children, a stay at home mother living an ordinary existence in a nice St. Louis suburb. At the same time that Violet is predicting a natural disaster in the city, garnering nationwide attention, Kate is concerned with the more mundane aspects of her everyday life: cooking dinner, getting the kids to bed, organising play dates at the park. While Violet works with her 'senses', Kate has suppressed hers to the point that they are almost completely dormant.

Violet's prediction causes derision and panic, depending on who you ask, and it doesn't help that Kate's husband is a scientist, and therefore privately and publicly sceptical of Violet's suggestions of an impending earthquake. Kate is embarrassed by her sister, and yet can't bring herself to dimiss Violet or her claims. The tension that builds as the prediction date comes nearer envelopes Kate's relationship with Violet, her relationship with her husband and children, and her memories of her own childhood and adolescence, memories that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Sittenfeld's writing is first class - from the first page I was happy to be swept up in the story and see where it took me. The characters are always nuanced and believable: I was struck by how, even when people did strange things, they weren't unexpected things as far as the character went. Sittenfeld also avoids a good twin / bad twin binary, even though Kate herself seems to believe in this distinction. As the conventional twin, the presumed 'good' twin and the book's protagonist (everything is filtered through Kate), she is not always entirely likable. Her judgmental behaviour towards her sister, regarding her profession, her relationships, her sexuality, and her whole way of living, was never far from the surface, yet this was balanced by her desire for normality and her insecurity in the face of her husband's successful female colleagues - it was easy to be annoyed at Kate in one moment, and then sympathetic in another (and later, frustrated by some of her actions!). An excellent novel, and further proof of Sittenfeld's immense talent as a writer and storyteller.

Overall rating: 9.5/10 

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

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