Saturday, 3 August 2013

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland.  Population 2.  Do NOT enter without permission!

For all of their childhood, this was the sign on Daisy and Violet Schramm’s bedroom door, placed there by Violet.  They are identical twins born in St Louis, Missouri 9 minutes apart, and the shock was so great for their 23 year-old mother - who had been expecting a single child -  that she never really recovered.  Life was inexplicably cruel to have dealt her such a blow, especially after she discovered that marriage to a quiet man much older than herself was not the answer to her loneliness.
Daisy and Violet know they are different, not just because they are identical twins and therefore expected to have a special bond, but because they have ‘the senses’:  they are psychic.
For bold, brash and funny Vi being psychic is as natural to her as breathing;  why lose sleep over it?  She is the dominant personality and jeers at Daisy’s longing to be ‘normal’, to NOT know that one of their schoolmates will die before long, and to NOT be regarded as strange and a freak after the class favourite turns on her for not predicting the romantic outcome she desires.
The twins’ journey to adulthood is fraught with pitfalls;  their mother succumbs to depression and isolates herself completely from her family’s ‘otherness’;  their father, that quiet, decent man, becomes quieter still and the twins can’t wait to leave home and apply to colleges in another State.
For Daisy this means a blessed escape from everyone who knows her – she can start again, make new friends at college and experience for the first time a new, thrillingly normal life for herself.  She meets and marries a good, kind man, has two children and vows never to return to St Louis unless she absolutely has to.  Her life is complete.
Until her father, bereft after his wife’s untimely death seems to need her presence – not that he would ask.  Or is it because Vi has made a mess of her college education (dropping out after six weeks) and leads a precarious existence, seemingly having trouble taking care of herself, let alone keeping a concerned watch on their father.  Naturally, Vi thinks she managing just fine, thank you very much:  she has advertised herself as a psychic and has a sporadic clientele in between waitressing jobs.  She is also an unashamed user of her family’s generosity financial and otherwise, and Daisy knows with that sinking feeling that it is time to come home – fortunately under another name;  she is now Kate (her middle name) Tucker.  Vi has gained a huge amount of weight – the twins no longer look identical – perhaps she can remain incognito in the city of her birth.
Until Vi drops The Bomb:  she predicts that a huge earthquake will strike St. Louis on October 16th, bringing herself nationwide publicity  and throwing Kate’s dreams of anonymity into disarray.  The tremors of Vi’s prediction spread outward, engulfing all within range, not least Kate’s marriage and the security she has worked so hard to nurture:  Vi has swung a wrecking ball through everything.
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of ‘American Wife’, that excellent novel of an American Presidential couple who bear more than a passing resemblance to George and Laura Bush, has produced another winner, an examination of all the different ways that we care for other people:  the love-hate relationship of siblings;  the conscience-stricken, tiresome responsibility for an elderly parent;  and the complex, ever-changing minefield of marital relations.
Such is Ms Sittenfeld’s skill at portraying this exceptional family that she can effortlessly give the ‘ties that bind’ a compelling new dimension:  highly recommended.

Joyland, by Stephen King

Stephen King needs no introduction.  He is one of the most widely read authors on the planet and rightly so, for he has that happy knack of presenting something different and completely unexpected with each new book.
Even though he writes mainly of the supernatural – so vividly and well that it would have to be someone utterly devoid of imagination who didn’t feel the hairs rise on the back of their neck -  he still has a master storyteller’s ability to make his characters completely normal, credible, as they experience the exact opposite.
The completely normal protagonist this time is 21 year old Maine college student Devin Jones, recently abandoned by girlfriend Wendy after a two-year romance - without ever experiencing IT, though he has tried many times to engineer circumstances favourable to the happy possibility of IT happening, but no such luck:  Dev is still a virgin and faithless Wendy has bestowed IT on some other guy practically on the first date!  He is humiliated, and tries to console himself with the summer job he initially got in North Carolina to offset his college fees, that of a jack-of-all-trades in an amusement park called Joyland.
And Joyland does seem to be the ideal panacea for Dev;  he likes the work, makes friends easily and is thrilled to be rubbing shoulders with some very interesting characters, not least Madame Fortuna, alias Rozzie Gold, who tells him the story of the murder of a young woman in the Horror House four years earlier.  She also tells him there is a shadow hanging over him and to watch out for a little girl in a red hat and a young boy with a dog.  Yeah, right thinks Dev – until he meets both children under very different circumstances:  he saves the little girl from choking on a hot dog, and he meets the young boy Mike and his mother on the beach as he walks to and from his lodgings every day.  Sadly, Mike has a terminal illness and is fully aware he has little time left.  He also ‘knows’ things and has warnings of his own for Dev, though he is not sure of their significance.
Working at Joyland turns into a most unique experience for Dev:  he knows he will never again find a job where he wowed all the little kids in a ‘Howie the Hound’ suit;  where he learnt what is virtually another language, the carnival argot, colourful and often outrageous;  where he struggled dreadfully with pangs of love unrequited but made great, lasting friendships, especially the special bond he forms with Mike – and where he almost loses his life, for the Horror House has secrets, and there are those who will kill to preserve them.
Oh, it’s great stuff – literature lite for sure, but pure entertainment nevertheless:  as always, Mr King’s readers will be loath to reach the end of the tale, and that has to be the ultimate recommendation.     


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