Review: The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric

Truly splendid, this book is truly splendid.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a book permeated by a malignant sadness. Lewis Wolpert coined the phrase in his 1999 book Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression. If not technically applicable, the phrase definitely captures the underlying mood of this novel. Joy and anything approaching happiness are only very sparsely, and sometimes perversely, peppered throughout the novel. The melancholic expression of the red-haired girl on the front cover should have given me a clue. Yet, not far from her face are those words ‘true and splendid’ — and thus the peculiar beauty of this novel is expressed: in her delineation of destitution, fame and death, Michelle Lovric writes a truly splendid novel.

The Hair’s the Thing

This novel follows seven long-haired sisters, on a journey which takes them from Harristown, in County Kildare, to Dublin and on to Venice. Their remarkably long hair is held as their defining or outstanding feature, it makes the sisters stand out amongst their peers, and then it makes them famous. However, Lovric also explores the theme of uniqueness on another level, as can be seen in the descriptions we encounter when we meet the sisters at their first show:

The oldest of us she was, nineteen at that time, Darcy of the Ethiopian-black hair, coiling and crinkling like the sea in a sunless cave. With her hair came a serpentine muscularity of body and will. Darcy’s rages could encircle and choke the life’s will out of you…
Next were our twins, lively Berenice and my most darling Enda, who had matching shades of soft brown — Madonna-coloured — hair. They sang a tense duet, each gesture in perfect harmony, as if they did not hate one another worse than a devil and an angel…
Now chestnut-tressed Pertilly bumbled out in front of the audience, perfectly sure, as ever, of disappointing. Poor Pertilly was not pretty at all. Not quite thirteen, she did not have even that freshness of youth we in Harristown called ‘pig-beauty’. Her nose loomed too large and her fleshy upper lip hung unbecomingly over the lower one. Worst of all, her eyebrows drooped the wrong way like the dispirited tails of two dead mice. She laboured away at her stanzas…
Pertilly’s song was mercifully done away with. Then Oona stepped up on the stage to refresh the desire of the audience for Swiney sisters. Oona, fairy-featured and amiable, had blonde hair, thick and soft as mounds of fresh butter churned in a moonlit barn. Like Oonagh, Queen of the Fairies, she had a fey , coaxing way about her. But even at eleven, she spoke in a strong bass voice and could pass for a man in the dark. When she opened her mouth on her ballad of first love, the audience sighed with shock and delight…
Next on stage was Ida, christened ‘Idolatry’, the dark-brown baby of the Swiney sisters, with dark-brown moods to match, and an irrepressible tendency to pluck the hairs from her head and wind them round her wrists and ankles. She lisped her lines about a beloved dead kitten with a furrowed brow and wandered uncertainly from the stage in the wrong direction…
Myself, I am called Manticory, tiger girl, on account of the read hair that is fierce upon my head. Darcy wanted me last on the stage, to give me the longest agony of anticipation, as a punishment, and because of my hair, the redness of it, which was enough to have got me into the heinous kind of trouble that I could not tell my sisters about.

Whereas novels ranging from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins focus on singular strong female characters with other female characters only glimpsed at, or offering bland comparison, Lovric presents the seven Swiney sisters, not as a composite definition of the the essence of femininity, but as a sample of the variety and diversity of womanhood.

Yet, one can argue that it is not the seven Swiney sisters that take centre stage in this novel. Rather, as the narrator puts it ‘[t]hat hair had its own life’. Indeed, the novel could accurately be described as the true and splendid story of the hair of the Harristown sisters, with the story of the sisters themselves being a mere subplot. They are as antagonists with the hair as protagonist, they both prosper and suffer at its metaphorical hands and feet. The subordinate nature of the story of the sisters is not, however, a criticism of the structure of the novel. In fact, it is essential. One of the key themes of this novel is the nature of celebrity. Thus the novel offers a revealing mirror to our own age, where the real lives of celebrities are often subplots to the overriding narrative of the basis of their fame, or infamy.

The dramatic power of hair, almost as a separate character to its bearer, is explored throughout the novel. However, it is most potently revealed when the sisters play characters, in their performances, whose lives and stories also speak to the power of female hair:

Portia by John Everett Millais (1886)
Tristan started Oona gently with a soberly clad Portia, whose hair was a golden mesh t’enrap the hearts of men/Faster than gnats in cobwebs.
He had Pertilly sprinkle Oona with silver dust for her role as Frau Holda of the fairy tales, a white witch of the spinning wheel who teaches good girls to comb their hair so that pearls and rubies drop into their virtuous laps.
Next Oona’s hair was piled in a towering style and she was dressed in a dusty panniered confection to be Belinda of Mr Pope’s poem. The audiences loved the strange contrast between Oona’s deep voice reciting her lines and the moonlight hair that massed around her face, ‘insnaring’ men to rape her locks.
She also received a standing ovation for Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, though I could not be sure whether this was for the poetry or the tight pink costume she’d been sown into, and its three anxiously large fig leaves. Oona did her best to look wanton as she spoke of ringlets that curled like the tendrils of a vine…
Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
The lights rose to show Darcy glowering of a pomegranate as Mr Rosetti’s Prosperpine, the shades of Hell darkening her eyes and the serpentine gyre of her neck and hair showing all her power. She was Mr Sandy’s Medea, clutching a blood-red necklace, and also his Rosamund, her murderous hair as black and tumultuous as her soul. In a shadowy background, a prone Tristan played the husband she had just slain, while I, in the wings, sent a skull spilling wine spinning across the stage. Darcy’s most celebrated role was as Medusa, using an ingenious device adapted from an egg-beater to raise wiggling snakes in her hair.

Thus, with huge cast of women joining the Swiney sisters in this novel, the story draws upon deeper themes, not just of female hair, but the extent to which hair is the emblem of femininity, and the challenge that proves to a woman’s ability to self-define.

Lucky Number Seven

As a native of Seven Sisters in London, I myself am not alien to the particular conceptual charms of a septet of women who, numbering seven, the number of divine completeness, represent something that transcends their status as mere mortals.

Mercury Entrusting the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs of Nysa (aka the Hyades) by Franҫois Boucher (1734)

There are a number of sets of seven sisters in legend and mythology. Most interesting, in the current context are the Hyades. One of the theories for the derivation of the name Hyades is the Greek hys meaning ‘swine’; which seems to be a lucky coincidence, as the Swiney name in the book is a version of the popular Irish name ‘Sweeney’. The name of the Hyades came to be translated as “the rainy ones” with respect to the myth that the seven sisters were transformed into stars as a result of the sisterly love they displayed by weeping over their dead brother Hyas. This again finds parallel in the novel, with a particularly gorgeous bit of prose from Manticory:

And it was remarkably fond of rain where we were born. The sky was always weeping; the earth was a greedy sponge for it; the rain flowed down through our hair, inserted itself under our smocks and slid down to our feet. The thin geese were always slick with water; their eggs were slippery with it too and dropped through our hands, leaving all too few to trade with the travelling hagglers who passed through Harristown selling dusty semblances of tea and flour. The rain eased itself through the gutters and overflowed the barrels under the eaves.
You may be thinking now that my words are very and too much like the rain, pelting down on you without particularity or mercy. And I shall say that perhaps it is the rain forever scribbling on our roofs and our faces that teaches the Irish our unstinting verbosity. It’s what we have, instead of food or luck. Think of it as a generosity of syllables, a wishful giving of words when we have nothing else to offer by way of hospitality: we lay great mouthfuls of language on you to round your bellies and comfort your thoughts like so many boileds and roasts, or even a lick of Finn MacCool’s finger dipped in the milk that simmered the Salmon of Wisdom.

While seven sisters are the swiney, rainy stuff of mythology, Lovric’s main inspiration the Swiney sisters came from the story of seven long-haired sisters in the United States. The Seven Sutherland Sister of Niagara County, New York State were born in rural poverty, joined Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, marketed a ‘Hair Grower’ and went on to make millions, only to outspend their income and become destitute. Their story is definitely worth the motion picture that was almost made about them. Suffice to say, numbering seven is key in making the story of sisters not only the stuff of literature but the stuff of legend.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

I will only briefly touch upon the wealth that could be said about the narrator of this story, Manticory, as she is just such a great character that it is essential to read and experience her for yourself. Manticory’s role as a storyteller is a rich source of delight and fascination in this novel. She is definitely a reader’s narrator. She is herself a reader, and a writer, and she speaks to truths that can only really be fully understood by readers and writers. Speaking of her love of books she says:

I’d learned this: whoever writes the words owns the story, and whoever owns the words writes the story.
So it was with words that I now began to extract my own identity from the hot churning soup of Swineyness.

This concept of the ownership of words is pervasive in the novel. Words owned by the business men Mr Rantifleury and Tristan Stoker are used to sell dolls and hair products on the back of the sisters. Words owned by the journalist St John Millwillis threaten the sisters’ lives and fortunes. However, it is Manticory, whose fire lies not in her wild red hair, but in a life eventually lived with passion, who owns the words and the story.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a terrifically engaging and well-written novel. It’s out now, so you can read it for yourself: Amazon US|UK. Enjoy!

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