|The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A tale about the fetishistic delight with which Victorians looked upon hair and how a travelling troupe of sisters attempted to exploit it while being exploited. Very different and delightfully quirky!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 480||Date: June 2014|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing|
|External links: Author's website|
The seven Swiney sisters are growing up during Ireland's 19th century potato famine so know what it is to go without. Therefore when their eldest sister Darcy works out a way for them to earn money using their talent and long, long hair, the other six follow on. (They'd be daft to cross the dangerous Darcy anyway.) Gradually their hair becomes their future and the 'Swiney Godivas' are created. However, fame doesn't always bring happiness with the adventure; in fact for the sisters it brings notoriety – a different thing altogether.
Author Michelle Lovric has a habit of surprising us. The highly acclaimed and Orange Prize nominated The Book of Human Skin diverted us from the well-trodden path of most historical fiction with amazing results and her children's novels such as The Undrowned Child mix myth with a delightful alternate reality. Here in The Harristown Sisters the inspiration may be a real family but she proves that the factual parts can be just as strange as the made up stuff.
The seven sisters of the novel are inspired by an American family 'The Seven Sutherland Sisters' from Niagara County, NY who toured selling hair restorer. Both sets of entertainers grew hair past their knees but the climax of the Sutherlands' tale is a little less dramatic than that of the Swineys. The Sutherlands just petered out when bobbed hair became fashionable
Indeed, where the book is concerned, if you aren't nail-chewing within moments of the deliciously elongated climax starting to build, you have no nails to start with. But I seem to be getting ahead of myself – back to the beginning.
Michelle wanted this to be a true rags-to-riches story so she moved it from the US to a 1850s Ireland decimated by the potato famine. The girls live with their mother on the edge of survival, without even a father or with an absent father or a secret father each, depending on who in Harristown you listen to.
Each girl has been named after her chief characteristic. For instance our narrator Manticory is leonine in courage and ferocity, although not realising it till the pressure starts to crush. Then Darcy is Irish for 'black'; she's black haired but the darkness goes much deeper than that as her evilly manipulative schemes demonstrate. (Having said that, their mentor Mr Rainfleury ensures that Darcy doesn't have the monopoly on creepy and twisted.) By the way, don't look into the girls' names too much before reaching the end; one of the others' meanings is a bit of a spoiler.
All the sisters are believable and Manticory has the voice and lilt of an Irish balladeer without Michelle needing to write in the vernacular. There are also some wonderful vituperative exchanges once again showing Michelle's love of the language of insults.
As we watch the girls grow up, exploit and suffer exploitation, we realise what a peculiar era the Victorian age was. Indeed it's hard for us to consider it as moralistic as it thought itself while we watch the girls work, play and fall in love with sometimes unsettling consequences. (This is definitely not one of Michelle's children's books!)
Whatever we think of our forebears, they're well suited to Michelle's imagination, combining with it to produce a novel that's both fun and tragic. In fact it leaves us at the end of a trail of surprises and shocks wondering with wrapt anticipation as to what Michelle has for us next.
(Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If this appeals then we definitely recommend The Book of Human Skin. If you're already a Michelle Lovric fan, we think you'll also enjoy Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox, Essie being someone else who deals in the odder side of Victoriana.
You can read more book reviews or buy The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric at Amazon.com.
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