Vanessa and Her Sister
by Priya Parmar
Ballantine Books, December 30, 2014.
Doubleday Canada, January 20, 2015.
368 pages, 25.00$ (USA) 29.95$ (Canada)
The mythology surrounding Virginia Woolf still possesses us a century after she wrote her first novel. Woolf had a severe nervous breakdown, as a young woman, after the death of her father. For the rest of her life, she had tempestuous moods and couldn’t rid herself of her demons. What was it like for her loved ones to live with such an ingenious, yet tortured, writer? Priya Parmar explores this question in her new novel Vanessa And Her Sister.
The narrative is made up almost exclusively of fictional journal entries by Virginia’s older sister, Vanessa Bell. The entries cover nearly a decade of the Stephen sisters’ lives, from August 1905 to December 1912. It is a time when Virginia and Vanessa come of age, find their artistic voices, and make life-changing choices.
Vanessa’s written words give us glimpses of her awe, worry, and intimidation toward her sister’s talent:
“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her center holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”
Over time, Vanessa embraces her own strength and finds confidence as a Post-Impressionist painter. She’s the unwavering sister who tends to the needs of the family, of Virginia in particular. She walks on eggshells around Virginia, who demands her attention and love. Always.
A few letters, telegrams, and postcards from their circle of friends —a close-knit group of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Set— add other perspectives to the sisters’ story. I particularly liked the portrayal of writer Lytton Strachey whose flowery, lively letters to Virginia’s future husband gave us a keener understanding of the lesser-known Stephen sister:
“Vanessa is an ocean of majestic calm even if she does not know it. Virginia envies her sister’s deeply anchored moorings. Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us seem to flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.”
At times, Vanessa’s narrative becomes overwhelmed with intricate dialogue and historical explanations (like: “unmarried ladies like Irene have their breakfast in the dining room”). In such instances, we lose the feel of reading an old, intimate journal. When immersed in an epistolary novel, the readers should always feel like they are sneaking glimpses into real documents. I felt pulled out of the story when the journal entries no longer felt authentic.
Overall, I enjoyed Vanessa and Her Sister. The love and conflict felt real, and Parmar brought a past era to life. The reading experience made me even more curious about Vanessa Bell and her art. I now look forward to the three-part BBC series Life in Squares about the two sisters, to air in 2015.
*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*