The story starts with the unsuccessful suicide of the youngest of five sisters; on her return from hospital the parents host the first ever party for the five sisters and the neighbouring kids but during the rather stilted festivities the youngest goes upstairs to throw herself from her window onto some railings. Things are more or less normal for a while: the remaining girls go to school and the boys fantasise about them. Then there is a high school prom and the four sisters are allowed out with strict restrictions; when the eldest returns home late the girls are immured within the house. No more school. No more anything. Total imprisonment. And the fantasies of the boys outside grow stronger.
It is a strongly written book. There is a great deal of pathetic fallacy; even the house, like the House of Usher, decays. But the power of the writing lies in the accuracy and the detail of the descriptions of this normal suburb outside post-industrial town.
In the end it is more about teenage boys growing up in modern suburbia than about the girls.
There is so much great writing that this can only be a modest selection:
- "That was in June, fish-fly season, when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects." (p 4)
- "The aping of shared customs is an indispensable step in the process of individuation. "(p 22)
- "Her eyes watered and she was a foot taller than any of her sisters, mostly because of the length of her neck which would one day hang from the end of a rope." (p 26) It isn't exactly subtle foreshadowing but these foreshadows chill.
- "The majority of dying had happened during the Second World War when we didn't exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs" (p 35)
- "We knew the pain of winter wind rushing up your skirt, and the ache of keeping your knees together in class, and how drab and infuriating it was to jump rope while boys played basketball." (p 43)
- "As the diary progresses, Cecilia begins to recede from her sisters and, in fact, from personal narrative of any kind. ... Her precocious prose turns to impersonal subjects, the commercial of the weeping Indian paddling his canoe along a polluted stream, or the body counts from the evening war." (p 44)
- "He hadn't suffered the eternity of the ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to see her, of being actually inside her ear." (p 80)
- "Their stiff hairdos ('hairdont's', ... the beautician said)" (p 118)
- "He had never noticed her bifocals before. They cut her eyes in half." (p 120)
- "Once they're out of you, they're different, kids are." (p 143)
- "a white spermicide she referred to as 'the cream cheese'" (p 149)
- "Occasionally she sufficed with her 'Australian method', which involved shaking up a Coke bottle and hosing down her insides." (p 149)
- "A bedside clock became a hunk of molded plastic, telling something called time, in a world marking its passage for some reason." (p 158)
- "His lost look of a man who realized that all this dying was going to be the only life he ever had." (p 160)
- "But that was in the days when they expected perils to come from without, and nothing made less sense by that time than a survival room buried in a house itself becoming one big coffin." (p 163)
- "We had never dreamed the girls might love us back." (p 198)
- "Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our music, our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had." (p 231)
- "the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself." (p 248)
January 2018; 249 pages