Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay - Beverly Jensen

Having read loads of comments on "Goodreads" and elsewhere, I have to tell you this is obviously a Marmite book - you either love it or hate it.  I even read a review somewhere which stated that that the reviewer didn't like the book because the sisters were not very nice people.  Another one included the word pottymouth.......Mmm. Well, it's fiction, and you either liked the story or you didn't, and you need to know whether you liked the style of writing, the settings, the way the characters are drawn, etc. rather than the fact that a character is not very nice or that the character swears!   I am firmly in the I LOVED IT camp and it will definitely be one of my top 10 reads of the year.
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Stretching from 1916 up until 1987,  this is the entangled life of two sisters who, in 1916, are awaiting the birth of a new sibling.  They won't have a mother for long, because although the baby survives, she does not. Idella is 8, Avis is only 6.  Suddenly life turns into something else.  Their brother, who is 12,  is fishing and bringing in lobster from the bay.  Their father is attempting to farm potatoes and other root vegetables. There is no money, and to ease the pain of his beloved wife's death, there is a tot of whisky each night for Dad.  A French-speaking Canadian girl comes on board as a housekeeper, but when she declares her love for Dad, it is clear that she will have to leave and Avis and Idella will also have to be sent away.  So from a hard life of toil and growing up too soon, they are sent from New Brunswick in the Canadian Maritimes, down to Maine in America to family who will bring them up, get them schooled and see them right.  Until, two years later, they are on the train back home to Bay Chaleur, New Brunswick.

 In this wonderful book, the sisters lives are laid bare.  They will grow up, make choices, get married.  One will go to prison for a short while, one will run a country store for a long while.  I have some experience of the  areas of the Canadian Maritimes.  It can be bleak now, and was certainly bleak back then in 1916.  Perhaps we don't know how good life is now - no wonder they both wanted to get away and find again the pleasure in living that they experienced in Maine for that short period.  The characters here are fabulous.  You may not like them, but you can sure "see" them. And I loved the fact that this is no charming whimsy, either.  Sisters are jealous, they can hide things from each other, they can tell themselves that they are right and the other is wrong.  That's real life.  It's what Idella and Avis do all their lives, and altogether, it makes a fantastic read.

It is divided into parts, quite easy to find by the contents list at the beginning of the book.  I know that some reviewers thought it too bitty, and one even stated that if she had known it was a set of short stories she wouldn't have bought it.  But for me, that was the joy of it, because it doesn't feel like a set of short stories, it feels like a well written whole.  Yes, it started as a series of short stories, all about the same characters, and so it will have been the choice of the author's family and friends to publish them together as a novel after her death.  Well, Elizabeth Strout (Olive Ketteridge) did the same thing, and if you loved Olive, I think you will settle down with Avis and Idella very well.

*Beverly Jensen died at age 49 from pancreatic cancer.  It took seven years to get the stories together and published as a novel.  Like other authors who die too young, it is a pity there will be no more from Jensen.