John Clanchy, Sisters (#BookReview)

John Clanchy, SistersLocal writer John Clanchy has appeared a couple of times in this blog – as the author of the short story collection, Six: New tales (my review), and as the person launching Stephanie Buckle’s collection, Habits of silence (my review) – but never for one of his novels, until now. Sisters has an interesting history: it was originally drafted at the La Muse writers retreat in southern France in 2008, and has now been published by the retreat publisher, La Muse Books.

Given I introduced the versatile, and too little known, Clanchy in my review of Six, I’ll turn straight to discussing this latest novel of his. Briefly, Sisters tells the story of three late middle-aged sisters and the month they spend together at the family home on the north-central coast of New South Wales where the eldest, Sarah, now lives. The other two sisters, Grace and Rose, are twins. There is a mystery about why Sarah has asked them to come, though Grace is pretty sure she knows why, and we readers are pretty sure we know what it is that Grace believes she knows! It is, however, a little more complex than that – as you would expect. So, the first thing to say is that there is a plot.

The next thing to say is the obvious one – this is a book about sisters. There are, in fact, very few men, and I wondered how Clanchy had managed to capture women so well, because the book succeeds or fails on the basis of his ability to convince us with his women. Well, I had forgotten his dedication, which is “To my sisters Mary, Helen, and Elizabeth / and to Brigid, as ever”. (Brigid is his partner, I believe). I don’t know whether he has brothers too, but clearly he has spent a lot a lot of time with women. No wonder he writes them so well – and with such sensitivity.

So, pretty quickly their individual characters are established. Sarah, as the oldest, is the bossy planner who expects to control their time together. Indeed, she’s orchestrated this month because she has “thinks to discuss … things … to tell.” Grace, the older twin by 49 minutes (!), is widowed and has had breast cancer. She’s a counselor and is seen as the empathetic, reliable one. Rose, by contrast, has had a few husbands and even now is pining for her latest lover back in the city. She can be flighty and a bit oblivious, but can surprise Grace with her perception nonetheless. Clanchy captures the shifting alignments and allegiances between the three beautifully – Sarah’s separation from the twins, Sarah and Grace’s protectiveness towards Rose, Rose and Grace’s natural connection, and so on.

Gradually, Clanchy develops his plot, interweaving the sisters’ time together with stories of their childhood. While they were relatively happy, their growing up was not without drama, recalling Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina. Their disabled four-year-old brother drowned in a cave at the beach while under their care, and their father left home for France to live with his mistress. How and why all this happened, what they made of these events as young people and now as adults, and who knew and knows what, underpins the plot. Mystery and secrecy rule. The end, when it comes, is fairly predictable, but then this is not unusual in a well-constructed story. It’s the journey to that point, and the little details in the telling, that make most books worth reading. Here, it’s also the warmth and generosity in the tone that make it such an engaging read – particularly if you are of a certain age!

Of course, Sisters is about more than its plot of unfolding secrets – and the epigraph provides a clue. It comes from TS Eliot’s Four quartets: “We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.” Besides the fact that an old death drives the plot, there is the bigger issue of mortality. The sisters are in their mid-to-late sixties, and one has already had cancer. Rose believes, in fact, that Sarah wants them there to talk about wills. She doesn’t, but mortality is behind her request for them to come – and awareness of mortality imbues much of the sisters’ thoughts and communications over the month. Early on, in Chapter 3, Sarah shows them the work she’s done to restore their (appropriately named) Grandfather Forrest’s orchard:

‘I had to rip the old one out,’ Sarah said without turning her head. ‘It was done for. Over sixty – and over the hill,’ she added. Reminding each of them of a personal fact.

Supporting the plot and theme is Clanchy’s writing. It flows easily from description to dialogue and its various, sometimes funny, set scenes, all supported by evocative turns of phrase. Here’s lively Rose “within whose house of memory window after window was now flying open of its own accord”. And this is thoughtful Grace:

The past was another kind of train journey. One undertaken with only random glimpses of the landscape outside to anchor or trouble the memory …

Memory is, of course, part of the picture – what we remember, how we remember, when we remember, and who remembers what.

There are a few other characters who make brief appearances – those from the past via the sisters’ memories and two policemen, particularly the young, uncomfortable Constable Demko who first visits the sisters to check on neighbours’ reports of nightly activity in the orchard, “Music, people running about, loud voices, laughter …”. It is, of course, the sisters enjoying their summer evenings, “the original Bacchantes” as Sarah tells him.

And here I’ll leave it. Sisters is a gentle, thoughtful novel – sad, but realistically wise. It’s about life and death, regrets and missed opportunities, secrets and guilt, and most of all about love and forgiveness. On the surface, it seems simple – it’s certainly an easy read and it could feel clichéd with its family-secrets-driven plot – but in fact it’s a philosophical book from an older writer reflecting on how we make sense of our lives. His conclusion, I’d say, is that the answer is in the quality of the relationships we forge, and the generosity with which we maintain them. This is the stuff of life.

John Clanchy
Labastide Esparbairenque: La Muse Books, 2017
ISBN: 9791097233006 (eBook)

(Review copy courtesy La Muse Books)

22 thoughts on “John Clanchy, Sisters (#BookReview)

  1. Sounds really good, WG. And a thoughtful, appreciative review. Clancy is a writer who should definitely be wider known. Thanks for this.

    • Sorry, Clanchy. Predictive text, the bane of digital intercourse (or maybe that’s not quite what I mean?)

      • Thanks, WG. There was a time I think, in the 80s and 90s, when an interest was developed in ‘regional’ writing – which meant a kind of shelving for ‘Canberra’ writing, which only a few of us escaped. With globalisation replacing nationalism as a goal in Auslit, that kind of pigeonholing has gone by the board, but its effects have stuck.

      • Oh, I’m glad you’ve read and liked it too, Irma. Those women and their relationships with each other is so well done. I’d love to have included a quote showing showing his descriptive writing because that was lovely too, particularly the opening pages. But my reviews always end up longer than I think is sensible so I decided not to.

  2. Great review as always. As I get older I am appreciating this outwardly simple, character and philosophical driven stories more and more.

    I like the passages that you quoted. The do seem to contain a lot of meaning.

  3. Thank you, Sue, for your warm and gracious review of SISTERS, and others who have responded to it. I was particularly pleased that you mentioned the [new] publishing house of La Muse Books. I know that quite a few Australian writers have found their way to La Muse Writers and Artists Retreat – a vast transformed 13th century fortified farmhouse in a remote village in the Mountains of Languedoc (above Carcassonne), a perfect place of mountains, forests and roaring streams where I’ve stayed on four occasions now and been able to do a lot of productive work, and indeed to return this summer. After 10 years of operation La Muse has just set up its own publishing arm, and I feel privileged to have been asked to contribute
    SISTERS as its first production.Thank you again for reading and reviewing.

    • Thanks John. I was very happy when La Muse offered me the book to read – and I enjoyed it immensely, particularly the relationship between the sisters and how you captured that and their different personalities.

      I’m hoping to get to the south of France in a couple of years. If I do I’d love to have a peak at the place.

  4. Perhaps my problem with authors writing outside their own gender is that I grew up in a house full of boys and still, after marriages, daughters and sisters in law, find women almost impossible to understand, though ex-Mrs Legend and her sisters do their best to educate me. They of course find me entirely transparent which is a frustration in itself.

    • Oh that made me laugh Bill – that is, that you find them mystifying but they find you transparent! (I’d love to be a fly on the wall around your place sometime.)

      Still, I don’t think we should deny people the ability to imagine the lives of other. I know we’ve discussed this before and I share, to a degree your concern, but the arts are supposed to be about imagination and creativity and I don’t think we should apply rules or limits (unless we’re talking things illegal) to it.

      BTW, shouldn’t an anarchist eschew placing rules and limitations on others? I’m teasing – partly anyhow!

      • Don’t be a fly on the wall, feel free to join in the general (mostly constructive) criticism. Now anarchism –
        Firstly. As with drugs, I believe in education not prohibition.
        Second. Old white men of a certain class have had the dominant voice forever, and now it is time they stood aside and let Others speak for themselves.
        Third. People can write what they like – and I’m sure there’s some joy in imagining you are someone completely different from your real self – but as a reader I do not trust them to tell me anything new. I do not trust Shriver to tell me what it’s like to be a murderer. I do not trust McColl Smith to tell me what it’s like to be a woman of Botswana. Your review tells me that Clanchy has observed older women accurately, but he still cannot tell me what it is like to be one of those women.

        • Haha … I’ll think about joining in, constructively of course!

          As for the rest, trust. Interesting point. In one sense I get it! And could even agree with it! But in another sense, taken to extremes, it suggests you could (we should?) only ever trust people who write their own lives (like Helen Garner, say). Where do we draw the line?

          Take John Clanchy’s women … I’m not a never-married woman who’s (well, let’s not say all that she’s done), nor am I a widow who’s also had breast cancer, and nor have I been married three times and am living largely on the divorce proceeds, but the characters ring true. I do take your point though, and have my antennae out more the further the author is away from the experience, but I’m prepared to go with the flow and use my own imagination as I read. Trust is a complex word … what am I trusting the author to do?

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