Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Bad Sister - Emma Tennant

Often billed as a retelling of James Hogg’s masterwork, it is a great deal more than that, and to suggest otherwise seems to me to belittle what the author has achieved. Indeed, this is Emma Tennant at her very best. Confident, intelligent, and searching, she has produced a novel of great simplicity and enormous power.

The simplicity lies not in the story which is an interweaving of many layers, but in the telling. A lesser author would have made a hash of trying to keep so many narratives moving forward in such a way. Yet we are never lost in these layers, just as we are never lost in the mysteries. Nothing is explained, yet we are never left behind, because the author paints such a convincing picture.

The narrative is tight, tense, and slips in and out of the surreal in a way that many so-called magic realist writers have never managed. Such seamless writing is a joy to read; the use of such techniques enhancing the story. And there is extra joy in the fact we are left to engage with the story at our own level. A fantastical show is put on for our delight, both entertaining and thought provoking. How far we wish to go in looking behind the scenery is up to us. The door is there should we choose, but it is never once pushed at us.

Jane’s journey is one of feverish nightmare, never certain what is dream, what is hallucination, and what is real. Her encounters, her memories, and her actions move in and out of these different realms. And the end of the book takes us out of the quintessential urban setting with its noise and business back to the wilds where one can feel the cool, green, damp and the loneliness that lies at the heart of this sad tale.

Buy. Read. Marvel.