Story, character, setting and language as ebullient as those flowing tresses
Michelle Lovric’s ‘The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters’ is a book which almost appropriates the adjective ‘fecund’ to itself by way of description, so much does its language teem with rich, sappy, loamy, fruitfulness, even to a glorious abandon of excess.
Set in the mid 1860’s, starting in rural Southern Ireland, then moving mainly between Dublin and Venice, the Harristown seven Swiney sisters are impoverished young girls with a particular gift – each has a seductive, ostentatious, over-abundant cascade of twisty, tumbling, seductive Pre-Raphaelite tresses, reaching, when loose to between 4 and 5 feet long.
This is at a time when women’s hair was bound, confined, and kept private and well-controlled. But, unbound, that hair was the repository of lust and desire, fetishism and secret libido.
The sisters can also sing. Their lustrous hair and their performance skills are a potential exit from the world of poverty, And also a potential route for them to both exploit and, mainly, be the ones exploited. The sisters are wonderfully named, and wonderfully, richly, characterised. They are the raven haired, dark hearted Darcy, twins Berenice and Enda, violent enemies to each other, Pertilly who would have been happy to stay a homebody in the kitchen, limpid blonde Oona, Idolatry (Ida) the youngest, a little simple and disturbed, with a feel for the violin, and the lustrous, creative, flame haired Manticory, who narrates this rollicking tale and is the writer of the shows they are forced into performing.
This forcing comes initially from Darcy, who rules her sisters with cruel words, slaps and punches and has a fierce quest for riches and power, but also, there are a little cluster of men who find ways, both sexual and financial, to exploit the sisters.
This is a Gothic, operatic book by virtue of the intensity of feeling and opulence, sumptuousness of language, the reaching of heights of ecstasy, the plummeting the darkness of jealousy, violence, betrayal and murder. But the whole is delivered with such vivacity, such joyousness and juicy humour and playfulness of language that it becomes a wild, frolicsome read, despite the savage undercurrents.
And lest the term ‘Gothic’ should fret potential readers who might fear the pages may romp with werewolves vampires zombies and such other silly company – fear not, the ‘Gothic’ relates to the architecture of the language, full of delicious crenellations and furbelows. There ARE monsters within these pages, and they are all of a very human kind, with no need for the agency of magic.
It is (particularly in the earlier part of the book, before the sisters attempt to raise themselves – or Darcy whips them into raising themselves – into society) the richness of Irish rhythms and vernacular, the daily heightened delight in turn of phrase, the lovely wicked language which grabbed me into this book.
Here is the devilish (but caustically FUNNY) Darcy, in a typical insult for insult match with the archest of all her arch enemies, ‘the Eileen O’Reilly, the butcher’s runt’
May the fishes eat you, you dirty little spalpeen! And then the worms eat the fishes. And the worms wither their guts on the nastiness of your bits inside of them’
‘Here’s at you! A burning and a scorching on ye!’ was the runt’s retort
‘I will plant a tree in your dirty ear’ shouted Darcy’and slap you in its shade’
‘It is yerself that filthied me ear wid the great black tongue on ye, so it is.’
‘Stones on your meaty bones!’
Then the runt wished black sorrow of Darcy’s guardian angel ‘all red-eyed from shame at havin’ to do wid ye!’
I’m afraid I was snorting and chuckling out loud with periodic bouts of such inventive insulting
The book was inspired by an American group of fabulously haired sisters, at the tail end of the nineteeth century, who had a similar rags to riches and fall from grace journey, linked with exploitation, by men who saw they could be manipulated into being cash cows. They too were clearly eccentric, individual, fascinating, tragic, and lived operatically.
Lovric is a crafted storyteller to her bones, and I thoroughly enjoyed this effervescent read
I received this from the Amazon Vine UK programme, as an ARC. Sláinte , Vine!
This is released now in the UK, Statesiders have to wait till August, but it WILL be worth it!