I am sure we all have read some books that keep stay with you long after you have finished reading it. They surround you, filter your thoughts and makes you want to sit and go over all of it again; as if unravelling a multitude of wrappings until you reach the very core and as each layer falls away, you see something unseen! I was very fortunate in reading two books back to back that gave me similar experience – maybe it’s like my friend Stefanie says, it book karma; (after a bad book, you are bound to get a good one!) but whatever it is I feel extremely fortunate to have read through not one but two such works within a short space of time. The first one of these that I have already discussed is “The Narrow Road to Deep North” by Richard Flanagan – the book was a cathartic experience. The second book which I wanted to share with you today is “The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters” by Michelle Lovric. I had heard a lot of praise about this book from a lot of people, including Jane and my flatmate, and I had bought it long back, but it was only recently, I was able to read it!
The book opens in 1850’s Ireland, where in the small town of Harristown in County Kildare, Annora Swinney, a poor laundress is struggling to bring up her seven daughters. The country is still in the grips of last stages of the Potatoes Famine and the Swinney family living a hand to mouth. Despite the pitiful growing conditions, the Swinney sisters grow up with strong personalities and a lot of hair. Each daughter is endowed with long rich tresses of various shades that reach up to their ankles. Darcy the eldest has dark black and is the ruthless bully who threatens storms and beats her sisters into harmony and coordination. The twins Enda and Bernice are both brunettes and that’s where all their similarity ends as they fight and compete with each other for their very existence. The red haired Manticory is the intellectual of the family and it is her voice which guides us through the story! Oona is the blonde and the gentle one of the family, while Pertilly and Ida are the youngest, follow their sisters and are divided into the tribal lines – Enda, Manticory and Ida and Bernice, Oona and Pertilly, with Darcy reigning supreme. As the sisters struggle through their lives, Darcy one day decides to form a show with the seven sisters singing and dancing, showcasing their abundant hair. While the sisters are not sure about the whole enterprise and their mother does not approve at all, the girls start performing and very soon the fame of the hair spreads beyond the borders of Harristown. They are soon accosted by Mr. Rainflerury a doll maker who wants to make the Sweeny dolls and in the bid to market these dolls and their original better, he moves the Sweeny sister’s to Dublin. As more fame and fortune comes rolling in for the Sweeny sisters, do does loss, heartbreak and emotional breakdowns until their eventual fall from riches!
This is a beautifully well written sensitive book! The descriptions are harsh, but accurate and the struggles of poverty and of being young unprotected women in a men’s world as described by Ms. Loveric is stripped of all romance. The story line is strong, the plot completely plausible and the pace is breathless and keeps you running page after page. There are lovely descriptions of Venice and the author lovingly details all its splendor and grandeur! But what really holds the book together is the characterization of the sisters; I have rarely ever come across an ensemble where the entire cast is so unique and glitteringly brilliant. Ms. Lovric infuses life, independence and exclusive personality to each of the sisters to make them stand apart from the other. Darcy is mean bully, Manticory the intellectual, Pertilly, the ugly one in a family of beauties, gentle Oona, the constant hatred of the twins and shy and sensitive Ida. As you follow the sisters through their rags to riches and then back to rags story, the reader is subjected the entire spectrum of sisterhood – hatred and love, envy and generosity and while they slowly fall under different influences, they also cling together in their tribaldom. You might not like all of them, you may not even relate to all of them, but you cannot, you simply cannot ignore any one of them. They jump out of the pages of the book and grip your imagination and stay with you even after you have long finished reading it!