Told in a series of episodic pieces, each lasting just a few pages, Barbara writes about her family from childhood until she leaves home at seventeen. The babies began to arrive when her mother was only eighteen with the last one rendering Mammy infertile and deaf. Similar to descriptions of the Mitford household, there seems to be a knowledge of many things far beyond their years but the babies are thought to be hatched. While the house seems to be on the scale of a country manor it's in a rundown state and animals raised in front of a warm stove are eventually doomed for the dinnertable. Doling out cruelties to animals wasn't solely performed by the adults as the girls once tried to ride their rabbits - the results were pretty grim. Caterpillars were hung on string, ants were burned, and fish were trapped in drainpipes. There were no heights to which the level of violence would not reach and in describing her father's behaviour....
'Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice.'
The spelling error is intended and an example of how the writing is treated throughout the book although I didn't find it at all distracting.
Written before mass vaccinations there is a consuming fear of rheumatic fever, diphtheria, and pneumonia, which all end up visiting family members at some point, I did find a laugh out loud moment at one particular incident though...
'Kathleen had a beautiful croupy cough that was always coming, when I had a cough I used to pretend it was much worse than it was and strain myself to make an awful horse croak, but one of the maids called Florrie told me she used to work in an infermany, and an old man there kept coughing away, an up came his lung and she slipped on it in the dark, so I didn't try to cough any more after that.'
To the modern reader there are obvious signs of mental illness but it's also interesting to see signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before it was widely acknowledged. Routine tasks are repeated a certain number of times to keep away evil happenings, throwing away items that had been touched, and excessive cleaning and disinfecting.
While some of the details in Sisters By a River go a long way to shining a light on Barbara Comyn's personality and writing style I am glad this wasn't my first experience with her work. I came to this book after the fantastic Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, The Vet's Daughter, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and prepared for something off-kilter and slightly macabre. Still, I've been left feeling a bit wobbly after reading this book and can understand why publishers were hesitant to release it prior to 1947. It's going to take some time for the queasy feeling to go away but I can already see the brilliance and bravery in the writing.
Girls at a Rabbit Hutch at Ravelston by George Cruikshank