A trilogy of three novellas about three sisters growing up, pretty uncared for, in the forties. This might be called “I Saw Something Nasty in the Woodshed.” I think that suggests a lot about what this book does and what it ought to do but doesn’t. It’s about childhood confrontation with experience, specifically sex and death. It’s about vulnerability and unhappiness. The problem with this book is that it is too explicit and too overblown. It loses its power over the reader when the narrators tell us too directly how they feel and when there are too many faintly ludicrous disasters and unpleasant incidents. It is dangerously prone to the merely silly and will tip over for some readers. Their mother is too clearly and simply seen by her children as a beautiful, shallow, irresponsible and elusive woman, an instantly recognisable type of bad mother. All this is not what the Something Nasty atmosphere, which this book is all about, thrives upon.
But its effectiveness wasn’t spoiled as much as all that suggests. It does achieve a jumpiness, a frenetic tone that captures something about the vulnerability, the messiness, the uncontrol, of reaction. None of the sisters really act; they can only react to outside circumstances and pressures. It’s the worst of the state of childhood.
The first book is about Ula, who I think is about seven at the time. Her older sisters have formed a self-protective union from which she is excluded. She feels terribly left out and no one is willing to take responsibility for her. She ends up being taken to Ireland to stay with her family’s cook, Maggie. Maggie is sometimes jolly and nurturing, but she is ultimately irresponsible and her care turns out to be intermittent. She comes from a dismally poor, dysfunctional family and a recurring theme of the book is the sisters’ idealisation of down-to-earth family closeness among the working classes and an accompanying disillusionment. Ula does not stay with Maggie; she ends up somewhere quite different, where an unlikely sudden death occurs. Ula is the most resilient of the girls and we are assured she is not really much damaged by all this. This novella has the problem I have noticed with books that are a little more realistically narrated by younger children: this narration is annoying. The children are annoying. There is something shrill about the tone and the children are always wanting and paying attention to the wrong things. It feels like an obscuring of what is real, though I know that the idea is to capture what is real about younger children’s experience.
I preferred Unicorn Sisters. This is narrated by Bonnie, the oldest girl, when she is 11 or 12. The sisters have been sent off to a halfcocked little school for more or less genteel girls. Bonnie suffers a great deal of worry about fitting in. She makes fragile investments in happiness and trust. Then a group of hardboiled London evacuees are billeted at the school and proceed to be a bad influence on the sheltered pupils. The school begins to dissolve, while the girls live for dancing the jitterbug together each night. Clothes are no longer jealously guarded individual status symbols but are carelessly shared common property. Despite some resentment at these girls upsetting the status quo, Bonnie enjoys the relief she gets from her own worries in this communal experience. Obviously it can’t last, and Bonnie witnesses something she finds very distasteful and disturbing when it does. The school collapses entirely and the three sisters return home.
A Bubble Garden is about Eden and Tor, the middle sister. The sisters’ mother has married again and they are marooned in his rundown Irish house while he loses himself in alcoholism. Eden is an old acquaintance of the husband who he has employed to come and sort things out as a kind of agent. It felt as if it should be solely about Tor, for balance, but I suppose she and Eden share the book because the preoccupying desire for both of them seems to be ownership of Bonnie. Eden has a tendency to mythologizing and social climbing and sees Bonnie as delicate and upper-class. Tor is quiet and intense and has been resenting Bonnie’s relationships with others and the loss of their childhood exclusivity since the previous book. Naturally it all ends badly, with perhaps the most sudden and dangerously silly disaster of them all.
I’m not quite, quite sure I’d recommend this, but there is something about the atmosphere that works for me. It does remind me of The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns in its passive, somehow fairytale-ish treatment of outlandishly awful events.