Sisters is a spare and compelling novel in fragments, a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, a Chinese landscape painting with as much void as ink. It is composed of obsessively recalled conversations, physical details, dreams, photographs and smells, along with snippets of real-world knowledge, including a typically interrupted recipe for crème brûlée. A number of the fragments are less than a page, and some as short as a single line: “My husband genuinely liked women.”
The narrator of Sisters was once in marketing, is now in real estate; both she and her husband exist in the broad world of commerce, calculated exchanges and things that come with price tags – and rarely cheap ones. Although this metaphoric underpinning is never made explicit, the world it describes is one of trade and possession.
The narrator tells us she met her now husband at a dinner party when he was still married to her. Her husband’s first wife, a sophisticated and musically talented woman, shadows their relationship, but she is never named, though her comes with italics. Terms such as “my husband”, “her daughter” and “his son” take the place, for the most part, of names, a reflection, perhaps, of the narrator’s inability to pin down any of the people in her life: they all have a knack for being present while absent, and absent when present. Betrayals and secrets too go unnamed.
Sisters, by Lily Tuck, winner of the 2004 US National Book Award for Fiction, is a story about relationships – marital, familial, collegial, real and imaginary. It is also a story about the gaps within relationships and how we fill them for better or, often, for worse. The narrator’s husband is incurious about his wife’s former lovers and her dreams. She, on the other hand, is curious about everything. Both postures have their dangers.
This is a short novel, more like a novella – I read it in a couple of hours. Its prose is clean and crisp, as tantalisingly minimalist as her apartment, if seeded with literary references. The New York setting is a privileged bubble: comfortable and bourgeois, revolving around private schools, business travel, expensive weddings, dinner parties, organic produce. It is not the stuff of universal experience. Yet there is also a certain timelessness, for this is a story that has played out one way or another since Adam and Eve discovered there was more than one apple tree in the garden. CG
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Lily Tuck, Sisters ". Subscribe here.