“[S]he is a cautious creature. Given to bone-shattering honesty. Believe all her words…she does nothing by accident. Nor is she careless, like her sister. Virginia would set the house on fire just to watch everyone come running out in pyjamas.” Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister
What if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.
Full disclosure: I first bought VANESSA AND HER SISTER for my ereader, but after forty pages, I was confused by the characters and their nicknames, and could not sink into the very specific rhythm of the story that I sensed was there. Books have a funny way of whispering in my ear, however, so after a few weeks, I purchased the hardcover. Within ten pages I was spellbound by the gorgeous prose, the unique structure, and the very real women and men peopling the story.
Assembled as a series of letters, diary entries, and telegrams, Parmar’s writing is literary, witty, visceral, and captivating. I struggled to find just the right quote to include in this post because I underlined, starred, and dogeared at least a third of the book. (Another plug for paper: one cannot vandalize an ebook in such a satisfying way!) Whether one pauses in a sitting to savor the language, or grows full from devouring large portions of text, either case will leave the reader satisfied and eager for more.
If you do not know anything about Virginia Woolf’s family (as I did not), do not seek out information. Allow this book to begin your education on the fascinating Stephens siblings; allow it to surprise, thrill, anger, and move you as the novel unfolds. If you do have knowledge of the family and the artists of the Bloomsbury Group, enter their space as you never have before to gain new understanding of their movement.
At one point in VANESSA AND HER SISTER, a character says this about art:
“Yes, the public are disconcerted, but that is how art must happen. It cannot be a comfortable, smooth transition from one aesthetic to another. It must bump and jostle and disrupt and shake the ground until the ground gives way…The old does not politely move over to make way for the new; it must be roughly shouldered aside.”
Priya Parmar does just this through her experimental style. She disrupts the common form of the novel and presents us with a telling of such intimacy and immediacy, it is as if the characters are whispering in our ears, conspiring with us. I did not want this book to end, and when it did, I went back to the beginning and started re-reading it. I will keep VANESSA AND HER SISTER close at hand, revisiting the story often for enjoyment and for craft study.
I shudder to think that format almost kept me from enjoying one of my new, all-time favorite novels. If you are a fan of historical fiction, of literary fiction, or of being moved by spectacular writing, I highly recommend VANESSA AND HER SISTER.
**(I do love my ereader; don’t see this as an indictment of the format. It is just that some books are meant to be read on paper, and this is one of them.)**