Review: The Sisters Mortland

30 08 2007

In The Sisters Mortland, Sally Beauman focuses on the story of three sisters, Julia, Finn and Maisie, and their complex relationships with three young men, Dan, Nick and Lucas. The story begins in the summer of 1967 and then flashes forward several years into the future for the second and third section of the novel. It is told from the perspective of three characters: Maisie, Dan and Julia. The title of the novel comes from a painting that one of the men does of the three sisters during that fateful summer.

This isn’t my first experience with Beauman’s work. I read Rebecca’s Tale awhile ago. Before I began reading Rebecca’s Tale I was almost determined not to like – such was my love of Rebecca. But I enjoyed that novel much more than I expected and I purchased The Sisters Mortland on the basis of that reading experience.

While reading the first section of the novel (narrated by Maisie) I was reminded a great deal of atonement.  Perhaps it was that feeling of a long ago defining summer.  Also Maisie’s voice and the child nearing adolescence who narrates about all these things going on around her that she doesn’t entirely understand, that she seems to have a sixth sense about and yet who struggles with the complex relations between men and women.

It is quite a long book, taking many different paths and diversions, but at the same time something felt incomplete about it – and I’ll come back to that. I didn’t find the characters particularly likeable and perhaps that was what Beauman was striving for, to make them more well-rounded and developed and human. I didn’t not like them because they were flawed, but more because there was almost a type of arrogance about their flawed personality. There are also all sorts of different configurations of the sisters and the young men – virtually every one of these relationships is explored and this struck me as something a little too much on the soap opera-ish side of things.

Getting back to the issue of incompleteness, there were aspects of what happened during that summer and specifically why one of the characters does something which were left unexplained. This connects again, I think, to the issue of real life and how much there is in real life that we don’t know, particularly about people’s motivation. At the same time, I always enjoy fiction where we are given more than we usually are in life. Something like Byatt’s Possession – where you get to the almost end and you think how sad that this was never resolved (or at least I did) and then there is a final section where she does share a very important scene – the kind that wasn’t known or recorded in “life” (the lives of her characters) where there is a meeting or experience which explains and more importantly gives meaning and because it is a work of fiction we (as readers) are able to experience that type of transcendence we don’t often get in real life. That is something I enjoy in my reading and I sometimes – actually usually – get disappointed as a reader when I don’t get that. I understand the randomness and chaotic nature of life and that sometimes we just don’t know and the meaning of things is unsure. I already know all of that. I look to my fiction for answers to those types of questions.  I look to it for questions to, but I like it best when I also get some answers – answers to questions in the text and also to ones outside or inspired or provoked by the text.

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