Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: A modern American fable about the danger of tempting fate

In her latest novel, Curtis Sittenfeld depicts the tedium of modern motherhood a little too well - a gamble she has taken before, but has consistently paid off.

Sisterland
Curtis Sittenfeld
Doubleday, 416pp, £16.99
 
Near the beginning of Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, the twin sisters Violet and Kate are having a fight. Kate, the devoted mother of two small children, is listening with some asperity to what she feels is a deliberate provocation from her free-spirited sister, who announces with studied insouciance that she has begun dating women. While insisting that her resistance to this idea is not homophobic, Kate informs Violet that choosing to be gay will make her life more complicated, especially if she decides she wants children. Violet, who dropped out of university and lives a defiantly unconventional life, is unimpressed by her sister’s frustration at the “sheer choreography” entailed in caring full-time for a baby and a toddler. She tells Kate: “Children are nothing but a problem people create and then congratulate themselves on solving.”
 
This idea, to which Kate returns later in the novel, might be said to comprise the leitmotif of Sisterland: it is about the consequences of self-created problems and the risks of self-fulfilling prophecies. In order to explore these ideas, Sittenfeld bestows upon Kate and Violet psychic powers – what their family calls “the senses” – which become a metaphor for questions about the relationship between choice and destiny. This is a bold, romantic move for Sittenfeld to make in a novel that otherwise seems to find satisfaction in undiluted realism, cataloguing the quotidian details of ordinary American life with near-anthropological interest.
 
The book is narrated by Kate and before long it appears that the almost fetishistic listing of her daily activities – from feeding her children and burping the baby to errandrunning and playground activities – is Kate’s protective ritual: the consolations of the mundane in a life straightjacketed by its efforts to ward off the demons of misrule.
 
Kate has embraced suburban normality in an attempt to repudiate her psychic powers, which she has viewed since adolescence as dark and disturbing. At high school, she has the frightening ability to intuit which of her classmates would die youngest and realises that a girl’s boyfriend is cheating. (This proves awkward for Kate, as it turns out that Violet is the person with whom he is cheating.) When their classmates realise that Kate and Violet have these intuitions, the twins are branded as witches. Kate goes off to university, determined to reinvent herself: she changes her name from Daisy and settles into sorority life and serial monogamy.
 
By 2009, Kate is happily married to a kind, intelligent man who teaches geophysics at the local university and she is facing two problems that shape the novel. First, Kate is a deeply anxious, solipsistic mother, obsessed with her children’s safety and torn between devotion to them and self-pity over the way they dominate her life. Second, Violet has had a premonition and announces that she believes St Louis will be rocked by a devastating earthquake. (This is roughly equivalent to making the same prediction for, say, Kent.) Despite its improbability, Kate thinks her sister might be right, for she has her own impression of an impending disaster. Violet decides to make her fears public to warn the community, although Kate suspects that her motives are also commercial, as she scrapes together a living as a clairvoyant. The media pick up on the story and soon their lives have become a circus, while Kate and her husband find themselves at odds over whether he has ever accepted the reality of the sisters’ gifts. Kate is both embarrassed by her sister’s notoriety and afraid that an earthquake will devastate her family.
 
Sittenfeld cross-cuts Kate’s anxiety as the fateful day approaches with flashbacks of her adolescence with Violet, as they grow up with a depressed mother who dies young and an affectionate but distant father. While fixating on her children, Kate also tries to take care of – if not control –Violet and their father, who make varying demands on her time and attention. And she spends a great deal of time with Hank, a stay-at-home father whose wife is a colleague of Kate’s husband at the university. Gradually, her anger and resentment, suppressed since high school, begin to simmer to the surface.
 
It is only through the glimpses we get of Violet – flamboyant, intelligent, defiant – that Sittenfeld suggests there might be a life less ordinary in the margins of this book. The risk Sisterland runs is the affective slippage that can happen with any rebarbative subject in fiction, when the novel becomes infected by the flaws of its protagonist. The trick of the dramatic irony in which Sittenfeld specialises is to ensure that there is a discernible gap between, for example, a story about stupid people and a stupid story or a story about boredom and a boring story. As is the case in all of Sittenfeld’s fiction, her characters are neither stupid nor boring but Kate is perhaps the most riskily tiresome of her protagonists, a woman blind to her shortcomings but without the redemptive charm of self-deceptive characters such as Jane Austen’s Emma.
 
Sittenfeld may depict the tedium of young motherhood a little too well for readers in search of entertainment. This is a gamble that she has taken before and it’s paid off, in novels from her debut, Prep, about a girl trying to fit in at a competitive boarding school, to American Wife, her widely acclaimed portrait of a young woman who grows up be First Lady Laura Bush in all but name.
 
In Sisterland, Sittenfeld throws in a plot twist that is, as Kate says, “a situation from a soap opera”. The problem is not only that what happens to Kate is improbable but that the woman we have come to know is precisely the person who would never make the choice that drives the story to its conclusion. The shift from the all-too-believable to the implausible is too abrupt but the questions it raises about self-fulfilling prophecies remain compelling. In the end, Sisterland is a modern American fable about tempting fate and in it Sittenfeld shows that she is willing to practise what she preaches.
Tempting fate: The novelist Curtis Sittenfeld. Photograph: Artz/Laid/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad