My Sister, Myself Paperback – 31 July 2018
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With the Nazi occupation of the country not too far behind them in post Second World War Hungary, the citizens of that country have another oppressive regime in the form of their communist masters. When Russian tanks roll in to suppress the student uprising, Lάszló, a journalist, his wife Teréz and their two daughters, Katalin and Marika have to escape the country because Lάszló is a wanted man. He’s served a prison sentence, was conscripted to fight at the front for his outspoken views and his anti communist political stance. Teréz and Marika manage to get onto a train to Vienna to stay with family there and Katalina and her father make a perilous journey over mountainous, snowy routes into Austria.
Reunited there are tensions between the two sisters who have a difficult relationship throughout the book. Marika is impulsive and a bit on the wild side, Katalina, more reserved with an introspective personality. Shortly before she left Budapest she was told that she would be given the star role of the Snow Queen in a ballet performance and the disappointment of losing out on this stays with her for a long time. The family live in a pokey flat in Kentish Town before the girls go away to a boarding school for girls where they each encounter their own problems and some prejudice towards their refugee status.
When tragedy befalls the family and the girls are sent to rural coastal Devon to stay with their aunt Klάra, sister of their father, the problems between the sisters spiral out of control. Marika loves the area, her aunt and her dog but Katalina doesn’t and makes every effort to return to London.
I found this novel to be an absorbing and fascinating read. A lot of issues were highlighted. Family dynamics, particularly those between sisters who were the complete opposite of each other and the issues facing both refugees and evacuees. The displacement of people during wartime and and the lasting psychological damage that can happen.
At first I wasn’t very keen on Marika and preferred Katalina but by the end of the book I had the opposite view.
I liked the character of aunt Klάra who had mixed feelings towards the girls of wanting to care for them but not relishing the intrusion of them, or the ongoing drama of their relationship into her usually secluded quiet life.
The author has obviously researched the historic timeline of Hungary and the effects of war and conflict thoroughly. At first I wondered if she’d lived through the experiences described in the book herself because she brought it to life vividly and weaved it all into a fascinating story. All in all it was a well written, darned good read and the story kept me interested right until the end.
Emotive. Dramatic. Heart rending
This novel is at its heart a story of displacement and the effects of war on those who are the most innocent and vulnerable, children. Katalin and Marika are literally torn away from everything they know and are plonked into another, completely strange culture and are expected to assimilate to fit in. The novel examines how their loss of identity shapes their future and their relationships with each other and with those around them.
I had expected something very different from this novel, I thought it would be a saccharine sweet novel of the importance of sisterhood, but it tells a very different story, from a very different perspective, which I personally found fascinating.
In the first instance I found both sisters very unlikeable, and I never warmed to Katalin, although by the end I did understand her. It took me a little while to connect with Marika, but when I did I loved her sparky spirit. Her journey is the cornerstone of the novel and it is through her that we begin to understand Katalin. Their shared experiences, instead of tying them together, divide them and it really is a heart breaking story, and sadly so relevant today with wars still making refugees of children.
My only slight gripe was the pacing. The latter part of the book I found to be a little choppy, quickly jumping ahead a few years. After the gentle, luxurious pace of the earlier parts which focused on their school years, I found it to be in sharp contrast. I was left with the feeling that I wanted more, more information and more narrative to go with it. I still thoroughly enjoyed the novel, but for me it just jarred a little.
My Sister, Myself is a compelling and poignant novel and the writing is lovely, making it a joy to read. It left me with a deep feeling of empathy for refugees, and my heart hurt for the girls and everything they went through. It feels paradoxical to say I enjoyed a novel on a subject so heart rending, but I really did. I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in twentieth century historical fiction.