- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (30 Dec. 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1408850214
- ISBN-13: 978-1408850213
- Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 2.8 x 15.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 35 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 891,336 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Vanessa and Her Sister Paperback – 30 Dec 2014
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Radiantly original ... Irrepressible, with charm and brio to spare, Vanessa and Her Sister boldly invites us to that moment in history when famous minds sparked and collided, shaping the terrain of art and letters ... Prepare to be dazzled * Paula McClain, author of The Paris Wife * With sparkling wit and insight, Priya Parmar sets us down into the legendary Bloomsbury household of the Stephen siblings, where sisters Vanessa and Virginia vie for love and primacy amidst a collection of eccentric guests ... Vanessa and Her Sister kidnapped me for a couple of days. I couldn't put it down * Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky * Vanessa and Her Sister is the novel I didn't know I was waiting for and it is quite simply, astonishing ... Virginia's story is the one most often told, but it is Vanessa - the painter, observer, the woman struggling to balance her marriage and her art under the near-constant gimlet gaze of a younger sister willing to tip that balance - whose story this is. It is beautiful, wise and deft as a stroke upon the canvas * Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress * The Bloomsbury appeal continues ... Captivating from beginning to end, but Virginia Woolf fans be warned - you might not like what you read' * Vogue *
About the Author
Priya Parmar is the author of one previous novel, Exit the Actress. She lives in London and Hawaii. http://priyaparmar.blogspot.co.uk/
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Parmar emphasises the biographical element by including letters and postcards and telegrams, even train tickets, in a modish way (W.G Sebald made this sort of thing popular, I think). These read so well you assume they are genuine, quoted from original sources, but they are not, they are as fictional as the rest. In fact, one letter from Lytton about Toby's death so moved me, I pulled down a volume of his letters from the shelf and found the one he really wrote (21st November 1906). They were utterly different in length, tone, in phrasing and much of the content: two very different voices. Why reinvent letters that already exist? One form was getting in the way of the other.
In an author's note at the end. Parmar explains what she's up to: "It is not easy to fictionalise the Bloomsbury Group, as their lives are so well documented. They were prolific correspondents and diarists, and there is a wealth of existing primary material. For me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they left behind. The characters in the novel are very much fictional creations." This explanation, or disclaimer, would have helped me at the start of the novel, not the end. But fictional or not it doesn't remove the knowledge I and others bring to this novel of the characters and events it deals with, it just adds a whole new layer and a different angle of vision.
Biographical novels are governed by the historical source material. Unlike the ordinary novel, the characters, events and structure of the novel do not grow organically out of the material, they are already given; the author's task is to select and emphasise and give a voice to it. As Parmar says, her job is to fill in the spaces. Some authors do this very well: Colm Toibin's 'The Master', for instance, and Damon Galgut's 'Arctic Summer'. I think Parmar does it very well too, though I'm not entirely convinced that Vanessa in real life could have written such a literary diary as the one we have here - it's full of very fine writing, fine phrasing with acute insights. We are told at the beginning that Vanessa is no good at words - that's her sister's domain - and the fact that we have very few writings by the real Vanessa rather bears this out. Could Vanessa really have written such a diary? There's a question of credibility here.
All these and other doubts crowded in while I was reading the first half of the novel. I wondered what someone who has little knowledge of this group of characters would make of the large cast.They are brilliantly realised but mostly only sketched in. But chiefly I wondered why Parmar, through Vanessa's eyes, was building up a case against Virginia. Is this because Virginia, the more famous of the two, has attracted the most attention? That Vanessa's side of the story - her valiant attempts to cope with her sister's bouts of mental illness - has not been given sufficient exposure or credit? Whatever the reason, the author does rather have it in for Virginia, difficult as she must have been at times. Apart from a few pastiche letters, she does not give Virginia a voice, she is seen through other eyes and largely portrayed as a nuisance - wilful, spiteful, selfish, unstable, meddling, needy, capricious. This is unfair; it is part of the method whereby events are expressed mainly through Vanessa's eyes, through her journal, from one point of view; it's not a balanced method.
The heart of the book concerns Virginia's jealousy of Vanessa's marriage and to a certain extent her motherhood. Virginia resents Clive's presence and tries to draw him away through flirting. Clive falls in love with her. Vanessa feels it as a betrayal by her sister and says she will never forgive her. Thus a faultline appears in the sisters' famous relationship, one which, we are told, never closes. Though the relationship between Virginia and Clive is underplayed, off-stage, and largely ignores its literary nature (Clive was helping Virginia with her first novel), this works well: the book's energy derives from it. Once the crisis has passed, and Vanessa shifts her affections to Roger Fry, the book changes. I found this part richer and more satisfying and I ended the book feeling happier about it than when I began. Vanessa had learnt that, as Virginia intimated, Clive wasn't good enough for her, that she deserved a better man.
In 2008 the Woolf expert, Susan Seller, wrote a fine novel about the sisters' relationship, 'Vanessa and Virginia', covering the whole of their lives in a highly condensed form. By giving both sisters their own voices, albeit in fictional form, a more balanced picture emerged. Parmar's intentions, by contrast, are different: she wants to give a biased view, to foreground Vanessa and paint Virginia in a negative light. I'm not saying one approach is better than the other, just that their angles are different. And for all my caveats, I found this book extremely well written and completely absorbing.
A biographical novel can destabilise the reader's response to the characters and story - what is true and what is made up? - but when it fills in the undocumented corners and the hidden places of the mind and heart with images and insights that illuminate the given story and give us a new way of thinking and feeling about familiar figures, it comes into its own. I feel Parmar has done this extremely well, even if we might not always agree with her vision.
P>S> If, having read this novel, you want the larger, biographical source material, try Jane Dunn's 'A Very Close Conspiracy' which is about the sisters' close relationship throughout their lives.
It was hard to believe someone had made this up. I felt surely this must actually be Vanessa's 'real' journal. Or is Priya Parmar a spooky woman who transcribed this with a ouija board?
The characters are vivid and electrifying, and the sentences are like reading brush strokes of the vary paintings mentioned. Here she is Monet, here the words are tumbled onto the page in thick, mad colours, like Van Gogh. Such that reading it was akin to the weirdly physical experience one has in galleries, stepping closer to peer at this part of the canvass, standing back to consider that.
It's a triumph. I am off to order 'Exit the Actress' and I cannot wait to see what Priya does next.
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