Monday, September 27, 2010

The Story Sisters
By Alice Hoffman
HarperCollins, $28.99
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Much of Hoffman’s writing is filled with symbols and rich in fairytale and her latest novel, The Story Sisters, is no exception. But if the more fanciful layers were skimmed away what would remain here is a family saga, a gritty story of teenage dysfunction, love, loss and redemption.

The three Story sisters Elv, Meg and Claire are striking girls with pale eyes and long black hair. They are diligent, beautiful, well-behaved, thoughtful and people find them charming, even their odd habit of chattering away in a private, made-up language that’s lovely to hear, rather musical, like birds.

But there is something rotten at the heart of this family. Eldest sister Elv has a secret. She is traumatised having rescued the youngest of the trio, Claire, from a paedophile teacher and been molested in her stead. As a result Elv’s faith in almost everything but magic and ritual has been destroyed.

Hoffman glosses over the harsher details of the molestation, instead showing Elv disappearing into the fairytale land she calls Arnelle, weaving stories and creating myths for her sisters, shutting out the rest of the world by speaking in their secret shared language, Arnish.

Then Elv’s rebellion begins to follow more conventional lines. She plays up at school, tattoos black stars on her skin, shoplifts and takes drugs. Desperate to stop this self-destruction, her well-meaning mother Annie incarcerates her in a brutal reform school. There Elv finds love with the enigmatic Lorry whose fatal flaw – a heroin addiction – soon becomes another of her problems. The misery only deepens…their grandfather dies, Annie develops incurable cancer, Elv retreats further into a world where no one can reach her… until the book’s central crisis is reached.

The Story Sisters ought to be an unbearably sombre book but, while it is deeply sad in parts, Hoffman writes with such delicacy and detail, she captures so much beauty in her words, that even when the story is at its bleakest there is a joy in reading it. Her take on sibling rivalry and teenage angst is startlingly original and it’s clear that Hoffman, who’s suffered breast cancer and the loss of close family members in recent years, has laced the story with her own emotional experience.

Aside from the minor annoyance of some extraneous sections littered through the story that do little apart from help create atmosphere, Hoffman pulls off this blend of fairytale and gritty realism. Fans of her work will find The Story Sisters bewitching.


Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 26 September, 2010

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