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If The Sister were a movie, it would be in the genre of creepy horror. It is set in a large English country house, nearly emptied of furniture, with most of the wings closed down. An old lady, Ginny, has lived in this mansion alone for decades, but now she is joined by her sister Vivien, who has lived in London for all that time, and hasn't returned to home for all that time. Ginny is reclusive and strange, wearing two wristwatches and keeping clocks all over the house, and refusing even to have a telephone. Vivien announces her return to the family home, but Ginny doesn't understand what her sister's motivation is. Ginny spends most of the novel thinking about the past; both her childhood. Her relationship with her alcoholic mother Maud, and her research with her father Clive on moths. It's this reflection on the past that makes the book psychologically interesting. At points, Adams invites comparisons with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, as we come to see how self-deceived the narrator is, and how her whole life needs reevaluation.
Unfortunately, The Sister doesn't reach to the heights of Ishiguro's novel, and towards the end, lapses into a B-movie plot and hackneyed imagery. The title of the British edition of the novel is The Behaviour of Moths and we do learn a great deal about lepidoptery. Some of it carries the plot along: there are interesting discussions of whether caterpillars make decisions about when to change into moths, and this powerfully relates to whether some of the characters's most dramatic actions are inevitable. The description of the science of moths is also important to show how Ginny takes herself to be an active and important researcher, giving her life more purpose. Yet there are points where it feels that we are getting too much detail about scientific projects, and it distracts from the main line of plot.
Possibly the most interesting question raised by the book, psychologically, concerns Vivien's character. She is the younger, more vivacious sister, who seems to have a far better handle on reality. She sees what is going on between her parents far sooner than Ginny. She seems to have Ginny's best interests at heart, and also to believe in her older sister's abilities more than others. Yet we are left unsure whether Vivien has been manipulative, egotistical and inconsiderate towards her sister. This is at least partly because it becomes unclear how distorted Ginny's thinking has become, and how far she has slipped into delusion.
The Sister would have been a much better novel if it had a different ending, concluding with a different sort of confrontation between the sisters. Yet it is still an interesting work that is impressive for a first novel. The reading of the unabridged audiobook by British actress Juliet Mills is excellent, making Ginny a sympathetic narrator, and downplaying her more bizarre traits.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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