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7 February 2023updated 24 Feb 2023 6:37pm

The blurred ethics of memoir

Blake Morrison’s account of sibling tragedy passes its moral questions on to the reader.

By Pippa Bailey

When Blake Morrison’s father was discharged from hospital to die from bowel cancer at home, he stuck boards of plywood over the glass in the front door. “To be stalled and stranded like this is bad enough,” Morrison wrote in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), “for others to see him in this condition…” The book, a masterwork of memoir, became a bestseller and a film. If he was aware of the deep irony of including such a sentiment in a work that made his father’s final indignities so public, he did not acknowledge it.

Morrison, a prolific author and poet, has made something of a career of chronicling his family secrets. His first memoir was followed by Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002); Two Sisters completes the sequence. Morrison’s sisters are Gill, 16 months his junior, and their half-sister Josie, the product of their father’s affair with a family friend, Beaty (not her real name). Josie’s paternity was only confirmed by a DNA test eight months before her death. Both died before their time, from suicides of sorts. “To lose one sister may be regarded as misfortune,” Morrison writes, “to lose two looks like carelessness.” The two sisters of the title could equally well be Grief and Guilt.

In a 2006 afterword to And When Did You Last See Your Father? Morrison wrote about how an earlier draft of the book had opened with his father in hospital; his editor advised he turn it around, so the reader gets to know his father at his most alive and vivacious first. In Two Sisters Gill is given no such chance. We meet her at 10.30am, hiding from her family in the garage, too drunk to stand without the support of a nearby Toyota Corolla.

There may have been two Gills, sober and drunk, “the kind and loving Gill [and] her doppelganger”. But Morrison only keeps a diary when “upset or miserable”, so the Gill who hides boxes of wine among her children’s toys is more vivid than the one who is bullied at boarding school aged 11, or who loved to sunbathe, even in the Yorkshire Dales. Sometimes Morrison’s stories of drunk Gill are funny – the time her husband was interrupted from extricating her from a bush by a man selling fish from a van – but mostly they are tragic. Gill hides credit cards in prearranged places so that taxi drivers can buy alcohol and deliver it to her; she dies alone, curled up on a strip of carpet between a bed and a radiator. Only after life, Morrison believes, can life-writing begin: “Death is the only permission.”

In the aftermath of Gill’s death Morrison reads everything on sibling relationships (“sib-lit”). He devotes many pages to surveying real-life brother-sister relationships, from James and Eileen Joyce to Dorothy and William Wordsworth, and lists these chapters in a footnote, “for any reader inclined to skip” them.

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One such chapter is dedicated to the sib-lit sub-genre of incest, though there is no suggestion of anything sexual between Morrison and Gill. Elsewhere he remembers walking in on Beaty while she was breast-feeding Josie and recalls “how Beaty had let me see her naked breasts. Not in the way she’d let Dad see them. Not to touch, only to look at. Even so. In my own fashion, I’d shared his excitement.” What is the purpose of such profound honesty, other than to shock?

It is a question that Morrison circles throughout. At one point he describes his “mission” as being “to demythologise the romance of heavy drinking”, but this is too narrow. To call Two Sisters a work of therapy seems to patronise a writer of undoubted skill, but it is Morrison’s attempt to make sense of his sisters’ lives and deaths, and his part in them. It can also be read as an indirect response to the criticism levied at his brand of extreme truth-telling (a passage in As If, his book about the killing of James Bulger, recounts how he once got an erection while bouncing his baby daughter on his knee). He pre-empts accusations and rebuts them: “The truth isn’t malicious. I’m here to commemorate them, not expose.” But by raising ethical questions without fully answering them, Morrison passes responsibility on to the reader. He has written it; ought we to read it?

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In the final pages of Two Sisters Morrison recounts a conversation he had with an ex-girlfriend, Jill, after his sister Gill’s death. Gill had told her:

‘I wonder if Blake will write a book about me one day.’ I left it a while, Jill adds, then I asked her how she’d feel about it. ‘Why not,’ she said. ‘I think I might like it.’

A final exoneration, from beyond the grave.

Two Sisters
By Blake Morrison
The Borough Press, 288pp, £16.99

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[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak