Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman: Book review

Drink with this: Corpse Reviver #2
An appropriate name is always a good place to start, especially one with a touch of the morbid. A book steeped in fairy tale and myth also deserves a cocktail with a bit of history. The Corpse Reviver #2 was brought to the world’s notice in 1930 in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. Originally invented as a hair of the dog cocktail, it’s sadly fallen out of fashion but is more than suitable for a novel where transformations and revivals are hard won but ultimately possible. Corpse Reviver #2 is a drink of layers – floral Lillet, burnt orange Cointeau, tangy lemon, biting absinthe and gin. These overlapping flavours will go well with this tale of powerful complexity. 

What's what: 

The Story Sisters, appropriately enough, is a novel centring around three sisters as they grow up. At the crux of the novel is a terrible event which happened to the oldest sister, Elv, the summer she turned eleven. The rest of the novel ripples out from this one catastrophe, its consequences proving far-reaching and destructive for the whole Story family.

This is the first Alice Hoffman book I've read and perhaps unfairly my perception of her is of a slightly downmarket Barbara Kingsolver. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be Anne Tyler, with a dash of magic and many more adjectives. Like Tyler or Kingsolver, her strength is in her portrayal of family relationships – and their breakdowns.

After reading the novel I learned that Hoffman is associated with magic realism. Perhaps this applies more to her other works – as an avowed hater of magic realism, it didn’t particularly intrude on the story for me this time. There is a fairytale motif running throughout – although that sounds far too cuddly and girly for the dark and demon filled imaginings of the novel. Central to the plot is the fantasy world – Arnelle - the three sisters invented as children, where monsters are real and must be fought and loyalty and bravery are the most important qualities. This world has its own language and is so all-consuming the sisters become isolated from their parents and school friends. As they grow older this world recedes from their lives, but the sense of a barely glimpsed otherworld persists in the novel. Several sections are set in a Paris where demons lurk outside windows, visible only to the venerable old ladies who watch over the girls. The prose is rich and treacly and dripping with imagery – it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s completely in keeping with the fantastical content.

"In every fairytale there were always three sisters: the eldest was brave, the middle one was trustworthy, and the youngest had the biggest heart of all. " pg 52 The Story Sisters

The story was a slow-burn, not gripping at first but one I couldn’t stop thinking about afterwards, with deeply imagined and plausible characters and great emotional resonance. I was initially drawn to it because it was about three sisters – but I found Elv difficult to sympathise with for most of the book. Despite this her creation of Arnelle as a coping mechanism and her anger along with all her actions following on from this felt extremely realistic.

One of the saddest parts of this very sad novel was the slow inevitable fading of this invented world from the girls’ lives as they grew older. There was a dark undertone throughout, which was part of the appeal for me and an antidote to a book which otherwise might seem just another fairy story or family saga.  
"What people called the truth seemed worthless to her; what was it but a furtive, bruised story to convince yourself life was worth living." pg 66 The Story Sisters

Verdict: Intense and evocative. Depending on you feel about the premise, either immerse yourself in it or avoid.

On the big screen: This would be an amazing movie! It needs a melodramatic, noir treatment. I imagine the look of Burton but the feel of a classic noir film such as Murder my Sweet or Gilda.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  Lowbrow – this ain’t won any literary prices yet. Not one to be ashamed of though, more in common with Atwood than Picoult.