Aren’t We Sisters?

aren't we sistersI am not the first person to write with a sigh in her voice about the way that ‘women’s fiction’ still seems to have a taint of inferiority about it. And it’s hard to pin down what separates one sort of fiction, presumably read more by women than men, from another. Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, for instance, a steamy tale of lust set on Mallorca during a family holiday from hell, garnered plenty of reviews from the main newspapers. I certainly enjoyed it but can’t imagine Mr Litlove reading it (I am very sorry to say there are certain parts of it he would enthusiastically read, but not the novel in its entirety). Whereas the splendid Aren’t We Sisters? has a review from mumsnet topping its search engine enquiry and a steady silence emanating from the dailies. Is it because the focus of the novel is reproduction, rather than sex? Remove the fun component and inevitably one must leave all that business with bowls and hot water and screaming to women alone?

Well, whilst Aren’t We Sisters? combines a number of perspectives on childbirth into a clever and enjoyable book, it is happily less interested in the gore than in attitudes of society and the amazing lengths women had to go to, to hang onto their veneers of respectability. Set in the 1930s it vividly depicts a world in which women’s bodies were policed with ferocity but rarely protected from harm.

Nurse Lettie Quick has taken up residence in the Cornish town of Silkhampton for reasons she is keeping to herself. Even her official business is too shocking to be openly discussed, for Lettie is a disciple of Marie Stokes and has arrived in town partly to save the local women from more babies than they can afford to feed, and the dangerous methods currently available to prevent them. But this isn’t all she is here to do. Lettie, who knows what it is to scramble out of poverty and has her sights set on the finer things in life, is open to more innovative ways of earning her keep. Several miles away, in a deserted area of the county, a young, pregnant woman has come to have her baby in hiding, and Lettie, if she can overcome her terrors, is here to help.

Norah Thornby has recently lost her mother and gained the debts and expensive maintenance of her large family home. What she unfortunately has not lost is her mother’s opinionated voice, reaching her from beyond the grave. ‘Such a stalwart thumper of a girl!’ her mother used to sigh over her, and Norah is aware she has very little going for her, shy and unskilled and hopeless as she is. Only her passion for the movies keeps her spirits up, and her belief that hidden within the folds of life there are Tests, that only a Great Woman will know how to rise to; she hopes one day to rise to them herself. And then Lettie moves in as a lodger and her attitude is a breath of fresh air: scornful, quick-witted, realistic, Lettie swiftly dispenses with the cumbersome chains of Mrs Thornby’s draconian opinions, and the women form a tentative, mismatched but genuine friendship, one that will bring all sorts of Tests for Norah in its wake.

Out in her isolated manor, actress Rae Grainger waits for her baby to arrive, tended by the competent hands of her housekeeper, Mrs Givens, but tormented by the uncanny happenings in the old house, and her ignorance of childbirth. Her reading of 19th century novels does not seem to be enough to carry her through the experience. When she first hears about her waters breaking, she is disconcerted. ‘Rae sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to fit the idea of a big gush in with what she already knew. Had Mrs Dorrit protected her bedding? Had Jane Eyre had a big gush? Perhaps Mr Rochester had stood her a new mattress.’ In the meantime, Rae delights in the intricacies of Mrs Givens’ Cornish accent and begins to learn more about her past with her deceased twin sister, the local midwife, and their life running the former orphanage in which she finds herself staying.

This is a clever, neatly plotted novel whose strands all dovetail beautifully by the end. There’s also a line running through it about a dodgy doctor that perhaps could have been dispensed with, but it all comes together to form a vibrant picture of the desperate business giving birth used to be. I particularly enjoyed the style in which it is written. There are wonderful lines, like the moment when a young boy realises that his dead mother can’t be found in the stories she wrote: ‘Katherine Mansfield wasn’t in Bliss. She was a voice, she was a sharp pin holding reality still for him to look at… It was another complicated way of being absent.’ Or the moment when Lettie finally lays her hands on evidence of the doctor’s wrongdoing: ‘It felt so powerfully present in her pocket. A muscular trouble, its teeth so very sharp.’ The dialogue is wonderful and I found the characters very endearing: Norah with her determination to meet life’s Tests, Lettie’s unapologetic eye on the main chance, Rae’s affectionate, generous personality. If this is that pitiful creature, women’s fiction, then bring it on. I would happily read many more books with as much wit and charm as this one.


p.s. I should mention that this is apparently a sequel to The Midwife’s Daughter. I didn’t realise this until I’d finished it, and it didn’t make any difference really to me.




32 thoughts on “Aren’t We Sisters?

      • No such thing as “women’s fiction” although clearly there is fiction written by women 🙂

        Of course in the minds of marketing “experts” there are all sorts of (probably) mutually exclusive forms of writing waiting to be put into convenient pigeonholes and certainly historically I am sure certain books were regarded by critics and perhaps the reading public at large too as suitable or appropriate for a primarily female audience.

        At this point Victoria will pop up to say that my “un-gendered” view of fiction is very untypical (for a man anyway) and I will bow out gracefully from the argument.

      • OK can talk on this at some point, over that coffee?? Antony’s or our garden? Off to Port Eliot now, so perhaps see you anon

      • Alas, the Puss knows me too well! As I would hate to become too predictable, though, I should add that for me there’s a big historical dimension to this issue, as well, after a good 500 years of reading that has most certainly been considered divided by gender. For several centuries, women and men have moved in separate geographical spaces and had completely different spheres of work, pleasure and power. Inevitably that has affected the things they write about, and the way that each reads (or doesn’t read) about the others’ world. A lot changed from the 1960s onwards, but whether we realise it or not, we are always thinking and imagining in relation to that long stretch of history, reacting for or against the things that have happened in the past. The way we make sense of things rises up out of cultural history as much as personal history. And then, yes, I do think that publishers in the present day continue to market for different genres, and that’s something we do need to think about in its implications.

  1. The word “sisters” maybe? The familial connotation might turn people off. Or that the title makes it sound like feminist rhetoric?

    • As someone who read a lot of feminist writing in my 20s, the idea of the sisterhood will always have a strong appeal for me. Mind you, the cover isn’t too feminist-looking! 🙂 But then that very cover would put Mr Litlove off reading it in the train (or indeed, at all). I can see I will have to pass this one on to Dark Puss as I’m now eager to know what he would make of it!

  2. Thank you. This isn’t a book that I would have thought to pick up but now I think I might go searching for the first one and then move on from there. I will definitely be interested in the Marie Stopes connection. The father of a friend of mine knew her well and was much derided by his male colleagues for the support he gave her. Fortunately, he was so well respected in his own field (ENT) that his career didn’t suffer as a result but I know from him that it wasn’t an easy position to adopt.

  3. After we’ve been dealt a Man Booker long list which pits ten men against three women I’m smarting a little about the issue of women writers. The coverage of fiction by women is shamefully out of kilter, or at least I would like to think it shamed someone. I’m sure you’re thinking ‘enough already’ so I’ll get my hobby horse under control. I remember reading and enjoying Patricia Ferguson’s Peripheral Vision, published by a small independent publisher, a long time ago but this sounds very different

    • How intriguing to think that Patricia Ferguson had a publishing life before these novels… I love finding out about that sort of thing. If you want to push the soap box nearer, I will happily stand on it with you. There remains a huge imbalance in professional reviewing and books by women do the worst out of it by a country mile. I hadn’t counted up the Booker titles but there really is, once again, a marked inequality.

      • She was with a small publisher but seems to have taken a different turn with Penguin. Naomi over at The Writes of Women has set the cat among the pigeons with the Man Booker gender imbalance. Too overcome with the heat to get involved but pleased that someone is being vocal about it.

  4. Well you know, men just care about the sex they don’t care about what comes afterwards, that’s a woman’s problem, not a man’s. Or at least that’s what publishers want us all to believe.

    • I do think that marketing departments at publishers remain very marked by gender conventions. I wish there were some statistics where we could compare the readership of British books with French ones, say, where the covers are plain or neutral for the most part. That would be very interesting.

  5. Litlove, interesting that you mentioned the issue of ‘women’s fiction’ as opposed to ‘men’s fiction’. Coincidentally, I just came from reading a book review of the British writer Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome. Have you read it? This is the first time I’ve heard of her and from the review, looks like her writing could be a bridge between the two seemingly incompatible sides. Here’s the link to that review. Just thought that might be a relevant discussion you’d be interested in regarding this issue of contention. 😉

    • Louisa Young is another intriguing author, her background (Peter Scott her grandfather etc) and fairly complex writing career (from novels to biography to co-written children’s lit to a work on the workings plus of the heart…) – some of these works are on my TBR pile. Another to explore.

    • I have heard of this book as I considered it at one point for an SNB review. What do you think of the cover, Arti? See, I just can’t imagine my husband reading that on a train. I agree that writing about the wars ought to provide some gender neutral ground, but it looks as if it’s marketed towards women to me. Maybe some male readers would like to comment on whether they would be attracted by the cover?

    • I think maybe you appreciate books that are a little darker? This was quite fun, on the whole. And after all, we can’t read ’em all, no matter how we try! (And I do try quite hard! 🙂 )

  6. This whole debate is for me, including m/f poetry. I intend to read Patricia Ferguson, I’ve been mistaking her for another amazing writing Patricia whose name is frustratingly on the edge of my memory – WI connection/mime/illusion??? That this PF is a midwife intrigues me even more. Thank you for this review and discussion

    • Carol, thank you for making such useful contributions to the discussion! My field when I was an academic was gender studies (many moons ago now), and I still like to think about it and view writing through the gender perspective. The feminists used to say you could tell a lot about a culture from the way the male authors treated their female characters. I still think that’s true!

    • Well done! Don’t you love that moment when the name finally comes back to you? (I seem to have to do a lot of waiting for memory to kick in, and I find the revelation at least a silver lining!).

  7. So glad this is being picked up – I was the only newspaper critic (The Telegraph) to cover it. It’s crisp, gripping, funny and brilliantly plotted, ideal for any intelligent reader interested in how women lived in the first half of the 20th century. I can’t understand why Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guest, which has some shared territory (not lesbianism but paying guests) got so much attention when this is better. The gooey cover doesn’t help.

    • I’m so glad to know that you have reviewed it! (I’m a huge fan of your novels, by the way). I loved this book and thought it was brilliant in so many ways, perhaps the voice most impressive of all. You’re right the cover doesn’t help, nor the publicity silence about it (not a book I was offered for review). Here’s hoping it can rise to the surface of the tide thanks to word of mouth – it certainly deserves to.

  8. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

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