True and splendid

Sometimes, all you want from a book is fabulous escapism, a rich and detailed plot, unusual and memorable characters, larger than life but oddly real, a bit of a saga, a bit of a fantasy, a dash of historical realism , an edge of melodramatic soap opera, all tied up with excellent writing and a cracking pace.

Look no further, friends!

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-1868

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-1868

I’ve found this season’s pacy but gothic, horrifying but enthralling, joyful and mournful, grubby, edifying, modern but ‘olden days’ read.
Michelle Lovric, The award-winning writer of The Book  of Human Skin, has crafted something really beautiful and unusual in True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters I was reasonably startled to look around and find myself in my house, in Dunedin, as opposed to over a hundred years ago in Dublin or Venice. It is a satisfying read, so beautifully written. Lovric’s word-pictures are remarkable, vivid and conjouring images in your mind’s eye. Look at this passage about an early morning boatride on a canal in decaying and grand Venice: “I loved the chimneys that looked like ice-cream papers rolled for a scoop, the wooden buckets clustering around the well-heads in each square, the loose-lipped onion-girls, the diminutive stone kings at the entrance of the Doges’ Palace, the way each gull interviewed the water with the shadow of its wings before deciding to slide its yellow feet into it. ” – have you ever read a better description of a meandering gull?

An image of the Sutherland Sisters – you see, it is fascinating…

The lover of Venice, and our appealing narrator, is Manticory Swiney, one of the seven Swiney Godiva’s, Irish sisters from the famine-stalked countryside,  with stunningly beautiful hair down to the floor, whose  singing and dancing village hall act is corrupted and transformed by their eldest sister, Darcy, who tilts like an unpredictable windmill between controlling, cruel malevolence and psychopathy, She is ‘helped’ by creepy, hard breathing men with an eye for the main chance and what an audience wants (and a fascination with hair catered to by the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood’s wan, swoony,

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse, 1900

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse, 1900

hirsute beauties), to sell photographs and dolls, and various hair products in their images. This brings the sisters undreamt of wealth, trouble, a house in Dublin, a palazzo in Venice, heartbreak, misunderstanding, loss and violence, and more than a brush with the unpleasant side of celebrity. The tale is loosely based on the experiences of the real-life Sutherland Sisters, who toured with Barnum and Bailey Circuses, but it feels immediate, fantastical yet real, fevered and bothered – all that hair, all that longing for that hair – and yet earthy and grounded – the sisters’ reaction to their new five-story Dublin home, fresh from a dirt-floor cottage in poorest rural Ireland, is funny and sensible and a little heartbreaking.
There is something magical about the seven-ness of the sisters, Darcy, black-haired and black-hearted; Madonna-brown-haired twins Berenice and Enda; Pertilly, chestnut-haired but plain and lumpen; golden-tressed, deep-voiced, naive Oona; auburn, articulate Manticory and chocolate-haired, fey Ida. They are like characters from a fairy tale, and this beguiling ‘complete collection’ feel to them points up how magical – even in what we think of as our sophisticated, so-many-options-for-entertainment age – the moment was when they turn their backs on stage and let their hair fall and flow.

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