Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Sisters Mortland

I think this book, The Sisters Mortland, should be retitled, "The Sisters Morbid," as that's the gist of the entire novel--a morbid fascination with death displayed by most of the characters. The author, Sally Beauman, is English, and there are certain things that I've noticed the British do better than Americans. Satire, dark comedy, Shakespeare (and acting in general) juicy bon mot and drollery, and exposition in movies are but a few of the things at which the Brits seem to excell. Then there's certain kinds of morbid horror that lend themselves to the British sensibility rather nicely. However, the British novels I've read, including British SF/Fantasy seem to have way too much 'tell' with no 'show.' The plots are glacial, the discussions of minutae endless, and the descriptions tiresome. I had high hopes that this wasn't going to happen to the Sisters, however, and I was saddened when it became apparent that the author was going to focus on death and betrayal as her theme, with lies and liars being the sub-theme. Characters are cruel to one another for no reason, and riveted to the past, with all its eccentrics and bizarre happenstance, as if that were the only way to live life, instead of just getting on with things and being honest or decent. I found myself disliking all the characters in the end, as they all seemed either cruel or vicious or stupid. Yet several characters seemed unforgetable and tragic. Maisie, the little girl who viewed the world differently than other children (she sounds like a high-functioning autistic to me) had such promise, though she'd been sexually molested by a man who gets off in front of her and gets completely away with it, and Finn, whom we don't hear much from, but who seems to have lost her ability to tell right from wrong (but, as she dies of cancer for her sins, I think we are supposed to forgive her) and the gypsy Daniel, whose headlong crash of a life ends horribly. I felt for him because I really felt that he could have pulled himself out of the mire of these wicked women and their lives, if only he had tried. The evil Martha-Stewart-clone Julia is only memorable in that she is allowed the last words in the book, for some odd reason, when she is the most souless, vicious beast of them all. Beaumans prose is poetic and plump, but there's a bitter aftertaste to it, be warned. I've also just finished another book of Dorothea Benton Franks, called "Pawleys Island" that was nearly as wonderful as Shem Creek. Again, characters that are delightful and surprisingly real, and a plot that moves along at a no-nonsense pace. Frank obviously has this contemporary fiction thing down to a science, and she makes it all seem effortless, which is the mark of a true professional.

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