Our maternal or primary relationship provides the base, secure or insecure, for development but it is not the only story of childhood. Children’s identities are shaped in so many ways by friends, schools, neighbourhoods and, particularly importantly, by our brothers and sisters.
Brothers and Sisters (2009), which I finished over my summer holidays, provides twelve very different and excellent Australian accounts, some fictional and some autobiographical, of the special bond that exists between siblings. Those bonds of blood and childhood can be haunting but also a great source of comfort as well as reflection and storytelling.
As Charlotte Wood writes in her introduction:
“The writers in this collection … have written in surprising ways about the deep bonds — bad, beautiful or broken — between brothers and sisters, and, in one piece, about our abiding suspicion of that happy, foreign creature, the only child. Twelve stories speaking of love and fear, separation and tenderness, confusion and — sometimes — reunion.”
Perhaps my favourite piece in this collection is that by Charlotte herself called “The Cricket Palace”. This is a tender and finely-realised story of two older sisters, Ruth and Wendy. On a whim, seventy-one year old Wendy accepts a casual invitation to Ruth’s daughter Leonie’s wedding in Greece and the two sisters travel there together. As the older and better-travelled of the two, Wendy feels a sense of superiority towards her younger sister but it is Ruth’s daughter’s wedding and Wendy is the outsider here.
Charlotte talks about siblings as being mirrors of each other and our “other selves” — grander, sadder, braver, shrewder, uglier, slenderer. In this story there’s a lovely contrast for me between Wendy’s other selves, her much-loved late husband Jim and then Ruth, her spoiled younger sister who had the children which she covets for herself. Wendy has brought a container of Jim’s ashes along on the trip for comfort, something she knows Ruth would find distasteful. When Wendy inadvertently loses this container, all that she has left is Ruth who, despite all her failings, is still there for her. This is a tender and also funny story and it certainly makes me want to look out for Charlotte’s novel “The Children”.
Three other stories which I have to mention are those by Ashley Hay, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Nam Le. Ashley Hay’s autobiographical piece on being and having an only child is a gem and I loved the way she brings in photographs, for example the one of Granville Stanley Hall, the man credited with founding the discipline of educational psychology and who was responsible for bringing Freud and Jung to America in 1909.
“Who wouldn’t warm to someone whose scientific surveys asked about the way laughter spread across a child’s face, about which features were first and which last involved? … […] Which is why it’s such a shame that Granville Stanley Hall is the villain in this story, given that it was just one statement of his that did all the damage to the Anglophone world’s perception of only children.”
Hay’s piece does a brilliant job of correcting our misperceptions of only children that they must be selfish and lonely. Here they are loved and full of life. Not “only” but unique.
Tegan Bennett Daylight’s story ‘Trouble’ is a wonderful example for me of an understated coming-of-age story. Her narrator never gets a name but she’s 18 years old and living in London with her older sister Emma. They both work at uninspiring jobs and adapt to unfriendly London where “no-one touched you, except on the tube, and that was either by accident or horrible design”.
Emma is the prettier, confident one and spends the majority of her time with boyfriend Jerome. The narrator is left with her cousin Karen and her job in a bookshop with its creepy, patronising manager. As the narrator becomes more aware of herself and her place in the world she experiences a gradual shift of perception which is part of her growing up. Lovely story.
And then there’s Nam Le’s story “The Yarra”. On the basis of this story I’ve added his collection “The Boat” to my TBR wishlist. For me “The Yarra” is a study in male violence and also about the almost inseparable bond between two brothers, Lan and Thuan. There’s an ominous atmosphere here from the outset as Lan describes his brother and the effect he has on him:
My brother, my blood and bones, confessor and protector, came in last night, he must be sleeping downstairs, and — as always when he comes — I find my hand on my heart and my mind wide open and wheeling. …
… As always, he lies on his back. His mouth is open, his eyelids violent with their shuddered thoughts, and under the thin sheet I can see the heavy limbs, flat and parallel as though lying in state.
[…] Our father, in his own way, failed to beat this into us, and so my brother beat it into me. I thought then I hated him for it but I was wrong. I wanted to know him — I always have. Now I realise it was only when he asserted himself in physical motion — then, ineluctably, in violence — that I came closest to doing so.
Violence, loyalty, identity. Nam Le does an excellent job of conveying all three. And then there’s the twist of course — there’s always a twist.