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Cutting the ties that bind.

Family. We’re hard-wired to need them, to forgive them their trespasses, to love them. But what happens if we don’t like them? If they disappoint us? Or if they just don’t want to be in our lives? We watch it play out between royal brothers on a world stage, and more intimately in our own families.

Recent studies show that over one in four adults will experience family estrangement. It’s often compared to the grieving process following a death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The difference is that estrangement doesn’t produce the outpouring of support that follows an actual death. Instead, there are feelings of shame layered over loss, grief, and anger. There are questions about identity: are you still a sibling/child/parent if your child or your parent or sibling is removed from your life? With changes in economic dependency, families aren’t needed as safety buffer against hardship, and family membership and identity is increasingly seen as a personal choice instead of a given.

Family estrangement is a central topic in Judith Barr’s new novel, Sisters.

Sisters by Judith Barr

Two sisters torn apart by a terrible lie.

In shock after an unbearable accident. Angie lets her sister Mandy take the blame, thinking she’s too young to get into trouble. But she’s wrong. Mandy is hounded, bullied and finally sent to live with their aunt, where she changes her name to Lisa and builds a new life, never wanting to see her sister again. Angie’s guilt sends her spiralling into danger. Thirteen years later, they meet again at their mother’s funeral. Lisa starts to suspect something is wrong. Angie seems terrified of her husband, and their father is hiding something too.
What does Lisa owe to the family that betrayed her?

Book Title: Sisters
Author: Judith Barrow
Genre: Family Saga
Publisher: Honno Press (26 Jan. 2023)
Length: 327 pages

gold starMy Review: 5 stars out of 5

It’s a funny thing about Judith Barrow’s books. I start reading, thinking they will follow an expected genre, get about halfway through, and realize that they are about something else entirely. In Sisters, for example, I thought I was going to meet another Cinderella, one who lives through and overcomes family trauma, meets her prince, and lives happily ever after. Only… not so much.

When we meet thirteen-year-old Mandy, she’s the classic middle-child of a working-class family on a 1970s housing estate. She’s proudly pushing the pram containing their family’s much-anticipated and beloved baby brother when she runs into her big sister, Angie, a typically boy-crazy young teen. Angie is attempting to show off for a boy when a terrible accident occurs and the precious baby is killed.

A devastated Mandy rushes back to her home, but to her shock is blamed for the tragedy. She waits confidently for her big sister to explain, but Angie doesn’t step forward. Instead, their family falls apart in a meltdown of grief, blame, and shame. Publicly branded a baby-killer, Mandy is bullied at school, shunned by her parents, and lied about by her sister, the one person who could have saved her.

Of course, we can see how the adults who should have provided love and support in spite of what was obviously an accident, instead fail their child. How the sister she’d always looked up to allowed her own fear to keep her from protecting Mandy or even telling the truth. And how all of the social structures of home and school and church fail to protect and support.

The bewildered girl is sent to Wales to live with her aunt and uncle. Mandy changes her name, rejects her birth family, and reinvents herself as Lisa. But that’s only the beginning of the story. As the two girls grow up, we can see that their split-second reactions in a moment of trauma are actually reflections of the people they will grow to be.

Both leave their broken family, and very soon come to life-changing forks in their separate journeys. Angie starts down a dark path where the only piece of herself she sees as valuable, her appearance, is regularly sold.

There was a moment when Angie had a chance to change her life: that first time she stepped through the door of that house, that first night, that first week, that first time, that first man… But she didn’t.

At almost the same moment, Lisa steps up to prevent a little boy being kidnapped. She recognizes that protective spirit as her life-calling, and begins training to become a child advocate.

That day with the little boy, I knew I’d never have a choice if I saw a child in distress. And I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

The meltdown of Mandy/Lisa’s nuclear family, the way everyone fails each other and her in a moment of ultimate stress— that was the story I expected to read. But it wasn’t the story Sisters had to tell. Instead, as the years pass, we see each sister tentatively begin to rebuild their lives, to unfold their personalities and characters from the smashed wrecks of that devastating moment.

Raised by her loving Aunt Barb and Uncle Chris in far-off Wales, Lisa finds her own strengths and life purpose. As she grows, she rebuilds some of the tattered relationship with her mother, and becomes a strong woman unafraid to love. The frightened little girl who keeps silent to protect the big sister who has betrayed her, channels that strength to protect other children.

But Angie’s path is one where that first instinctive cowardly betrayal sets the pattern for her inability to stand up for herself. It leads almost inevitably to a shameful existence and an abusive marriage.

When their mother dies, the two sisters finally meet up again. And this is where my expected story turned around completely. Instead of vindication for Lisa, we see a family whose core has disappeared, leaving each of them fundamentally lost. Each one has to forgive themselves for the all-too-human failings of being weak, angry, judgemental, scared. Along with each member of the family, the reader has to decide if it’s even possible to reclaim their humanity by reforming the family bonds shattered by tragedy, weakness, and time.

For me, Sisters is more than a story about a family destroyed by tragedy. It’s an exploration of how much we can give up in the face of devastating betrayal and loss, and how much we must give to reclaim our identity in the face of our imperfections.

I was particularly drawn to the settings. I enjoyed the contrasting descriptions of the family home, and the very different worlds the two sisters flee to, from the comfortable chaos of Wales that welcomes Lisa, to the sterile, compulsively bleached home that imprisons Angie. And yes, there was a bad guy, but somehow he lacked substance for me, an outline of nastiness rather than a fully-rounded villain. Instead, the true antagonists are the human failings in each member of the family, and even more their inability to forgive themselves and each other.

Sisters is a slow simmer, an intimate look at a gradually unfolding train wreck. It invites the reader to examine the effects of tragedy in the moment, but also as those effects ripple outward across the years, and especially the amount of strength and determination needed to swim against those ripples until feet finally find firm ground again. It’s not an easy read, but readers willing to explore the collapse of a family will be rewarded with characters who ultimately redeem their lives, reclaim their humanity, and most of all, affirm their bonds of love and family.

I unreservedly recommend this beautifully written, devastating, but ultimately hopeful story.

“Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now”—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 90

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath ‘scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.
—William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 90