Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

Hair! The seven Swiney sisters are blessed (or cursed?) with an abundance of long, flowing locks. Born into rural poverty in post-Famine Ireland, the girls take to the stage with an act held together by the audience’s fascination with their cascading tresses. Michelle Lovric’s inventive and darkly comic novel, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, considers the social meaning of hair, as well as the nature of celebrity, of femininity, and the bonds of family.

The Story: In Lovric’s new novel, the seven Swiney girls are born in rural County Kildare in the mid 19th century, a place where the ravages of the Famine are still fresh, to a poor mother and a mysteriously absent father. The girls are rich only in their luxurious, ankle-length hair, which grows with abandon and ranges in color from darkest raven to a shimmery gold to the coppery red of Manticory, the narrator. The seven sisters arrange themselves into two warring tribes of three, presided over by the hard-hearted eldest sister Darcy.

To escape their impoverished town, Darcy concocts a plan to make a living from their greatest asset. She sets the sisters on the stage as the Swiney Godivas with a vaudeville-style act of songs and skits, written by Manticory; in the final act, the sisters simply sit in chairs facing away from the audience and slowly unpin their rivers of hair. Their act is wildly successful, a perfect match for the Victorian era’s odd obsession with long hair.

Soon the Swiney Godivas attract the attention of unscrupulous men seeking to make money from the sisters, with binding contracts and tie-ins to long-haired dolls and quack hair oils. As the sisters’ fame and notoriety grows, new dangers lurk for them. Manticory begins to question whether they are selling their souls, and to seek a way out of the strange life of a Swiney sister.

My Thoughts: This was truly an interesting read for me. Michelle Lovric based her book on the true story of the Seven Sutherland Sisters of upstate New York, who performed with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and peddled hair products for decades before losing their fortune from ruinous spending. Lovric makes a great choice in setting the story in rural Ireland, and I particularly appreciated the early parts of the novel set in the poverty and misery of the Swiney sisters’ hometown.

I enjoyed the story of the Swiney sisters’ rise from starvation to stardom, but the novel, for me, began to feel melodramatic and overly fantastical by about the three-quarters point. I think it could have been about 100 pages shorter, with a few subplots cut down, without losing the essentials of the story. Lovric’s prose is flowery, lush and almost old-fashioned, perhaps to invoke the style of popular novels of the 19th century. This style choice works for the most part, although at times it can feel unnecessarily wordy and complicated.

Despite these criticisms, I found this to be a thought-provoking novel. Lovric makes some very interesting points about the meaning of hair and its connection to femininity, as well as about the pitfalls of fame. I was fascinated by the Victorian fetishism about hair and the strange, creepy connection of hair with death.

I would rate The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters as about a 3.75 out of 5, and I’d recommend it to those who like literary fiction with a dash of magical realism thrown in.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters will be published in the U.S. on August 12. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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