Blake Morrison is a poet, essayist, novelist and critic, but remains best known for And When Did You Last See Your Father?, his memoir of his father, and Things My Mother Never Told Me, its companion, each written in grief. In 2018, Morrison’s half-sister, Josie, died, and in 2019 his sister Gill. Here’s the third volume.
It’s a slightly defensive book, prone to spirals of self-justification. “There’s an assumption that to write honestly about someone is an act of aggression ... though there’s no retrieving her I’d like to make sense of who she was and what she became.” Publish and be damned, I think, or don’t, the issues of “honesty” and/or aggression are not for the reader, who is also not necessarily interested in who the writer’s sister was or what she became. The book needs to make her interesting, this unhappy woman we will never meet, and this is the challenge of “creative non-fiction” or “life writing” – to allow the mess and lack of meaning of daily life to govern a prose narrative that must offer the reader some form of order and meaning.
Morrison’s parents were doctors, whose training and careers supplied a framework of agency for their life stories, especially in the case of his mother, who was one of 20 children born to a Cork family and made her way through medical school to a new life in Yorkshire. Gill’s circumstances provide no such narrative momentum: a troubled, underachieving child becomes a troubled, underachieving adult. She develops severe visual impairment and an alcohol addiction that undermines her ability to care for herself and her children and eventually kills her in an inevitably undignified way. There’s nothing obviously novelistic about her story, no structure of romance or social mobility. In this book we also learn more about Morrison’s half-sister, unacknowledged during his father’s life though always at the edges of the family, and her story also resists a narrative arc.
Without a natural plot, Two Sisters depends on the thread of Morrison’s own coming to maturity in relation to his family of origin, and on the textures of daily life. These are the sustaining strengths of the book. He recounts and often regrets the behaviour and partial understanding of his younger self, but with forgiveness, not self-laceration.
This is partly a portrait of the painfully acquired wisdom of later life, an invitation to participate in the privilege of the backward glance that neither sister lived to enjoy. And the materiality of the past is vivid, oddly often more so when Morrison reconstructs scenes he didn’t witness than when he’s remembering. The scenes of Gill at boarding school – bullied, isolated, cold, hungry – and Josie’s conflicts with the man she knew as her father are haunting.
Morrison manages this very personal history partly by situating his relationship with Gill beside excursions into sibling relationships in European and North American literature and culture: Felix and Fanny Mendelsohn, Anton Chekhov and Maria Chekhova, James and Eileen Joyce. For me these rambles are too cursory and, where I already knew about the writers in question, frustrating: the two pages on Dorothy and William Wordsworth consist mostly of quotation. There are more interesting ways of thinking about their collaborative writing process, and Dorothy’s dementia and dependence on William’s care in later life could have offered an interesting parallel to Gill’s story, although the difference in circumstance is so great it’s hard to make general conclusions.
The relationship between fictional, musical and literary brothers and sisters across three centuries and the Morrisons’ story is often vague, and the idea that sibling narratives necessarily illuminate each other isn’t much developed.
Currents of shame and guilt run through Two Sisters. There’s ambivalence about writing the book, and publishing it; about leaving Yorkshire and Morrison’s family of origin for London and marriage; the possibility of guilt about failing as a brother, in childhood, in relation to the adult addict and in relation to Josie’s death by suicide; the possibility of shame at Gill’s addiction and the indignity of her final hours. But the book is, in the end, forgiving, gracious, making its way calmly and sadly through grief for what was and for what was not.
Sarah Moss’s latest novel is The Fell. She lectures in creative writing at UCD