Review: The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, Michelle Lovric

The title won me over on this one.  Sagas of extended families always tend to appeal.  I grabbed it during my recent trip up to Scotland and once I started it, I could barely put it down.  With the feel of a fairy-tale but far darker than your average fireside story, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters winds a compelling plot with elegance and originality.  Normally, I tend not to advise ‘fans of X would love this‘ but on this occasion, I do think that fans of The Night Circus and The Illusionists have a real treat in store with this book.  Like a dark and more deadly Cinderella story, the reader is spun into this rags-to-riches tale full of sensual pleasures, dark and deadly threats lurking in the shadows and hair, oh so much hair.

The eponymous heroines are Darcy, twins Berenice and Enda, Manticory, Pertilly, Oona and Ida, each of them blessed (or is it cursed?) with a mane of fantastically long hair ranging in colour from raven black (Darcy), chestnut brown (twins), scarlet red (Manticory) to honey gold (Oona).  The narrator is middle sister Manticory and she is an enchanting guide; Lovric manages to summon up the lilting cadence of the Irish accent in her words so that one could almost imagine the words being spoken.  Irishness here is no literary trope, but a true part of the characters’ identity.

Growing up in the bowels of Harristown with no credible father to speak of, the sisters survive on out a living on boiled potatoes, horrifying their bedraggled mother Annora by their constant in-fighting and cowering from eldest sister Darcy’s dark temper.  The girls are divided into two tribes, each led by one of the constantly warring twins but above them all is the omnipotent Darcy who encourages every conflict and has not a kind word for anyone.  Recording each wrong in her little black book, strangling the geese to spite her mother and taking every spare penny to spend on herself, Darcy is the dark figure of authority, bringing everyone down even as she drags them out of their poverty.

Sutherland sisters

Loosely based on the real-life Sutherland sisters who had similarly lustrous locks, the sisters are brow-beaten by Darcy into forming a musical act, at the end of which they let down their hair for the audience.  As their fame grows, so do their pieces become more elaborate, with Manticory acting as playwright and so the off-stage disagreements are exaggerated in on-stage battles.  And so, the seven girls from Harristown become the Seven Swiney Godivas, but right from the beginning there is the question of what the price will be of their fame.

As an English Literature student and accidental fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, I loved the way that Lovric made such use of the contemporary fetishisation of long hair.  One of the girls’ sketches even includes the story of Ophelia, famous at the time due to John Everett Millais’ notorious painting, modelled by poor Lizzie Sydall who caught pneumonia in the process.  Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock hyperbolises the horror of a man stealing a lock of hair from a young woman, seen as a shocking violation of her beauty.  Hair was cut off for mourning rings, for bracelets, was sold by one woman to another – the hair was worshipped as a thing apart from the woman from whom it sprung.

Ophelia, John Everett Millais

Indeed, from the earliest pages, Manticory knows in her core that nice young girls do not let their hair down in public, that they do not appear on stage, or dress up as Lady Godiva.  When Mr Rainfleury proposes to turn the girls’ show into a full business operation, Manticory is filled with horror.  The reader cringes with her as Mr Rainfleury insists on stroking all of their hair, on measuring them and observing them and immortalising them as dolls that will go on sale to the public.  The next step is for the girls to endorse various hair-rejuvenating products onstage as having the Swiney Godiva seal of approval.  Even as the girls move into their beautiful new Dublin townhouse, Manticory knows that they are making a deal with the Devil, but the shiny books, the lovely clothes and the life of luxury distract them all from what we know will be devastating consequences.

Michelle Lovric

This was a novel of true excess.  As the sisters’ fame and wealth grows, the splendour gathers pace too.  Lovric narrates the sisters’ travel to Venice with loving description and one could not help but feel jealous upon hearing the details of their new palazzo.  However, the seedy underbelly to all of their wealth is never far from the story.  Enda marries Mr Rainfleury who is twenty-five years her senior and there is every sign that she has done so to spite her twin Berenice.  One sister is attacked and her head is shaved.  Another begins nervously chewing her hair and descends into madness.

This book drew me in from the very first pages – it felt like a delicious piece of cake; pure indulgence.  My quibbles were few.  Manticory blames her lover’s wife for the end of their affair – any kind of wife-blaming sets my teeth on edge as I have a pathological distaste for adultery in both real life and in fiction.  I also felt that the overall resolution felt hurried and lacked the same satisfaction that the earlier parts of the novel were able to bring.  In many ways, the glory of The True and Splendid History was in its description so it is hard to know what would have made a true conclusion.  I will most certainly be seeking out Michelle Lovric again, this was a highly enjoyable and original dark fairytale which leaves behind it a vivid impression.

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The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Published by A&C Black on June 5th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 384
ISBN: 9781408833438

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