Thursday, 24 July 2014

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovric: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

To begin with, an important note: this is definitely not a children's book!- though Michelle Lovric has written several books for children, at least one of which I've reviewed
on this site. If you've read any of those - a series set in an enchanting alternative Venice, beginning with The Undrowned Child - you will immediately recognise Michelle's very distinctive voice. She rejoices in all the playful possibilities of language - but the lovely words do not hide a sharp wit. Here's an example: 

Mr Rainfleury, in contrast, was in seven separate raptures about his creations. He could not be stopped from fondling their hair, and waltzing them along the top of the mantelpiece... He paid not the slightest attention to our complaints. I flinched at the steel that lined his emollient manners.

The book concerns the seven Swiney sisters from an Irish village, Harristown. Though they don't have enough to eat and live in extreme poverty, they share one extraordinary feature; all of them have hair  which grows so abundantly that, when released, it reaches the ground. Manticory, the red-haired narrator, is one day almost raped by a stranger who has a fetish about long hair. The oldest of the sisters, Darcy - dark-haired, and a very nasty piece of work - sees a way to turn this fetish to the sisters' advantage; she devises a show, in which the sisters sing and dance, and at the end, turn their backs to the audience and let down their hair.

This is the age of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose models always rejoiced in a positive cloud of  hair, and as Michelle explains in her notes, there was a sort of brotherhood of hair-worshippers. So the show goes down a storm, eventually attracting the attention of two entrepreneurs, Rainfleury and Tristan, who offer to manage the girls. What follows is a recognisable arc in these days of reality shows and celebrity worship; the girls make masses of money but see little of it themselves (except for Darcy) and have no idea how to manage it. So their rise is precipitous, but so is their fall.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

It's a big novel in every way, with a large cast of eccentric and highly individual characters, who rejoice in a larger-than-life grasp of language and have in particular a tremendous talent for insults - the exchanges between Darcy and her arch-enemy, the Eilleen O'Reilly, are razor-sharp and full of energy. There's more than a touch of Victorian melodrama, but it's spiced with humour and wit and with a very modern take on the cult of the celebrity and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Almost unbelievably, it's based on a similar set of sisters, the Sutherlands, who were American and had a similar - though not quite as extreme - career path.

I guess you might put it in vaguely the same area as some of Joanne Harris's books, but really, I can't think of anything else like it. A rich and witty read.

(My thanks to the publishers, Bloomsbury, for sending me a copy of this book.)



Penny Dolan said...

This sounds a wonderful and distinctive novel, Sue, and now it's definitely on my grown-up reading list. I heard Michelle talking about her "Sisters" on Woman's Hour earlier this week. Thanks for posting this review..

Sue Purkiss said...

A pleasure, Penny!

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