In 1811, in the Louisiana Territory that would eventually become Missouri, a terrible earthquake hit, the earth ‘undulating like the ocean’. The Mississippi rose in thirty foot waves, every building was raised to the ground, whole towns were swallowed up. The much smaller earthquake that hits St Louis in 2009 at the start of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, Sisterland, does nothing more than rock the house briefly where Kate lives with her husband and two children, toddler Rosie and baby Owen. Kate’s husband, Jeremy, is a geologist at the local university, and so she has information on hand as well as his usual loving support. As the whole family settles back into bed, Kate has for once a feeling of security quite unlike her quotidian churning anxiety. For Kate is a supremely nervous person, and the minutiae of motherhood, the constant vigilance that mothers are required to exert over their children, serves only to ramp up her concern. In this brilliant portrait of uneasy motherhood, Sittenfeld never lets us forget that anxiety and vigilance go hand in hand, and that each magnifies and reinforces the other, a cultural curse on those who are responsible for the young.
This small incident might have passed over barely noticed, except that Kate’s twin sister, Vi, starts a media storm by appearing on the local news predicting a serious earthquake in the near future. Vi is a professional psychic, something that Kate finds an appalling embarrassment. Growing up, both sisters had ‘the senses’ as they were termed in her family, but Kate has renounced that part of her life. She was christened Daisy, and in early adolescence got caught up with the powerful girl in her class (Sittenfeld is reliably wonderful on the awfulness of adolescent politics) and a ouija board. What happened then was probably no worse than the average teenage fallout, but for Daisy, as she was, the whole incident is mortifying, the scorn and humilation an experience that scars her deeply. This is the sort of girl that Daisy was and that Kate still is – over sensitive, easily freaked, too thin-skinned, helplessly insecure. Her sister, Vi, has always been the one with all the attitude. Vi doesn’t give a hoot what people think and acts like she hasn’t a care in the world. But Vi’s carefree chutzpah doesn’t come without issues; she can neither hold down a decent job nor find a relationship, and she is a magnet for trouble. Daisy grows up into Kate, a woman who feels too responsible for everyone else, and Vi doesn’t really grow up much at all, utterly unconcerned by responsibility.
As soon as Vi has made her dramatic pronouncement on television, Kate finds herself drawn into an awkward conflict. Her husband’s colleague, Courtney Wheeler, has appeared in the same segment, trying to assure the populace that science believes no one is at risk. Kate is torn between loyalty to her husband’s scientific point of view, and the hypnotic lure of her sister’s, perched on the edge of a typical kind of resentment: whilst she can distrust and criticize Vi, she can’t bear anyone else to do so. Kate’s best friend is Courtney’s husband, Hank, a black stay-at-home dad with whom she spends most of her time. Siding with Vi will threaten Kate’s most significant relationships, but Kate can’t quite leave the situation alone. Desperate to control her sister’s behaviour (ridiculous as this desire may be, it’s an urgent one), and in thrall to a prediction that her own experience knows may well be true, she ends up convinced that October 16th will be the date of the earthquake. Inevitably a sort of panicked countdown begins in her life towards a day on which the ground beneath her feet will move, but not at all in the way she imagines.
Sittenfeld’s cleverness in this novel is in her representation of psychic abilities as something quite banal and vague, a sense of the future that comes of its own accord, not necessarily when pressed. She offers enough in the back story of the sisters to make the possibility of psychic powers seem plausible, and enough uncertainty in Kate’s own story for plenty of doubt. In particular, she shows how the notion of being psychic may be the fertile offshoot of feverish anxiety working with a lively imagination. Kate has so many worries that she does not know what is foresight and what is nervous funk. Her narrative, embedded with the endless minutiae of caring for small children, is set against a backdrop of potential calamity, the strange sense mothers have that the daily grind of feeds and sleeps can so easily be shattered by the sudden accident, the sudden illness, the unexpected stranger. The gap between the smallness of life and the huge potential for lurking disaster is so very hard to negotiate in that stage of motherhood (I remember it well), and it torments Kate.
And perhaps all I’d ever wanted was this – not the assurance of permanent, unbreachable safety for my children, because that was impossible, but the ability to distinguish between anything less than extreme caution and tempting fate.’
Kate’s fraught good girl persona plays off against Vi’s happy-go-lucky carelessness, and I began to read the sisters as embodiments of the two major attitudes that culture, essentially in the form of the media, thrusts onto people. There is the fear and dread that comes with the constant titillating alarm that we are always at risk in ways we barely understand, and then there is the positive, self-centred, grab-life-as-it-comes attitude which is seen as some sort of sensible antidote. Sisterland shows how neither is particularly healthy. But the twist in the ending made me wonder whether incarceration in the land of being good doesn’t inevitably bring about its own implosion, the lure of the dark side will always erupt eventually, bringing with it trouble that can only be staved off for so long. And one thing we can be certain of: when trouble does come, we will never be looking in the right direction. I loved this book, as you can probably tell, a clever, slyly insightful meditation on the culture we’ve created, hypnotised by the possibility of risk and disaster.