Michelle Lovric’s The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a dark tale. The seven Swiney sisters, born in poverty in rural Harristown, Ireland, spend their days fighting with each other. Black-haired Darcy, the eldest, has them all in fear of her temper and her fists. The brunette twins, Berenice and Enda, hate the mere sight of each other. Red-haired Manticory runs away to the fields to read and write in peace. The youngest three, blonde Oona and brunettes Pertilly and Ida, often get lost in the shuffle—though the sisters agree that Ida is not all she might be. Their mother insists that their father will return someday, but the Swiney sisters are gossiped about throughout the village because of their missing parent and because of their long, abundant hair. Manticory is our narrator as Darcy turns her family into a commercial empire before leading them into ruin in Venice. Lovric’s tale is the kind that you know from the beginning will not end without trials and tribulations for everyone.
When Manticory was thirteen, a man on the Harristown bridge tried to drag her into a stand of trees before being spooked away. Instead of giving her sympathy, her sister Darcy (who has no sympathy to give anyone) decides that the sister’s hair is their (her) ticket to riches. She bullies them into singing and dancing and books them into a local hall. Darcy knows that the only reason people will pay their sixpence is to show off their hair at the end of the show.The shows grow more elaborate. Manticory is drafted to write new ballads and sketches for the sisters to act out. Too keep things looking respectable, she includes stinging banter and stage violence to cover for the sisters aggression towards each other. This might have been as far as the Swiney sisters got if it hadn’t been for Mr. Rainfleury, a doll maker and “Brother of the Hair.” Rainfleury is one of many well-heeled hair fetishists that agree to help the sisters in exchange for a touch of their hair. Eventually, Darcy incorporates the “Swiney Godivas.” Before long, they’re shilling dolls in their likenesses and hair products. Rainfleury even marries one of the twins (though he carries on with the other twin).
The six youngest sisters hate being in Darcy’s show, but they feel trapped by Darcy and Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker (another fetishist). Manticory stays to try and check Darcy et al. from making the show even more of a spectacle than it already is. The sisters’ luck starts to turn—as you know it must—when a journalist starts to stalk the sisters and expose their past lies. Ida’s mental state deteriorates. A man attacks Pertilly and steals her hair. The strain is too much and they all decamp for Venice. (Manticory convinced Darcy to buy a palazzo there after she fell in love with the city during a trip to work with a local photographer.)
Lovric puts her battling and embattled Swiney sisters into smaller and smaller corners, turning their tale into a full blown tragedy before it’s all over. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a dark tale, full of betrayal and unscrupulousness and pure creepiness. But I had a fantastic time reading it. Lovric’s characters are so well-developed. Her plot overturns so many narrative conventions that I read with my iPad plugged into the wall for a few hours because I was running out of juice and I couldn’t bear to leave off while it charged. I had to know what happened next. This is a brilliant, challenging novel.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 August 2014.