Tuesday 16 June 2015

Book Review: Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson

Lettie Quick is full of missionary zeal. By taking Marie Stopes' vision of family planning to the furthest reaches of 1930s England, she wants to release a generation of married women from the relentless cycle of pregnancy and childbirth. But, in the face of suspicion and hostility, her mission has become covert; arriving in a quiet backwater of Cornwall, she dispenses her revolutionary advice behind the cloak of respectability that is the Silkhampton Mothers' Clinic.

The biggest scandal surrounding her is that she's lodging with the upper class Miss Norah Thornby in the square:
What would the old lady have said - why, it didn't bear thinking about - dear Lord, what a comedown there!
Norah has been living in the shadow of her snobbish dead mother for so long, that her reservations about taking a lodger are only overcome by financial necessity. Soon though, Lettie's forthright friendship becomes a catalyst for change:
Just two women, ain't we? Let's keep it simple - see how it goes?
This down to earth philosophy gives Norah the courage to share her love of movies and take her first tentative steps towards independence.

But there's more to Lettie than meets the eye. Why was she so set on coming to Silkhampton in the first place and what is her interest in the old black and white photographs of the square on market day? And how is she connected to the glamorous but enigmatic Rae Grainger, a movie star hiding away in an isolated former orphanage deep in the Cornish countryside?

As the narrative shifts between each of these women, a confusing frame gradually comes into focus and it becomes clear that Silkhampton is a place with more than its fair share of secrets. But the biggest mystery of all is yet to be uncovered, as the town wakes up to find it has a killer in its midst.

Aren't We Sisters? was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize and is Bristol-based writer Patricia Ferguson's fifth novel, following on from her highly acclaimed The Midwife's Daughter. Her experience in nursing and midwifery brings great authenticity to her writing and, as well as being an absorbingly interwoven story and gripping thriller, Aren't We Sisters? also serves up an intriguing slice of social history; an insight into a time altogether distant, yet not that long gone, when a married woman's lot was to bear children and face the very real possibility of dying in the process.

It took me a while to get around to reading Aren't We Sisters? because I was initially put off by its cover - only to find the reassurance on Twitter that I shouldn't be. Since finishing, this absorbing tale of sisterhood has been lent enthusiastically between friends, so much so that I haven't seen my copy for a while - and surely there can be no better recommendation.

Aren't We Sisters? is published in the UK by Penguin Books; thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

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