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Review: Sisters By a River, by Barbara Comyns


Pages: 151

Original date of publication: 1947

My edition: 2000

Why I decided to read: Ebay

How I acquired my copy: Found it on Ebay, January 2011

Sisters by a River is an odd little book. Based closely on the author’s childhood, the book is told from a child’s point of view (although references are made later in the book to the main character’s teenage years), complete with erratic spelling and punctuation, and run-on sentences. This way of telling the story is unique and charming, though I could see why it might get tiring after a while (probably the reason why this novel is only about 150 pages long).

Understanding Barbara Comyns’s childhood is the key to understanding the context of this book. According to the preface of the Virago Modern Classics edition, she was the fourth of six children, having a childhood that was “both an idyll and a nightmare” (some of this is reflected in Sisters By a River, albeit told from a child’s skewed perspective). Comyns’s father drank heavily, and there’s a family legend that her father told her mother that he would marry her as soon as she was old enough to bake a cake (this anecdote makes its way into Sisters By a River).

The story that Comyns tells in Sisters By a River is both tragic and happy; tragic because of what happens to the narrator’s parents, happy because, as a child, the narrator can’t quite understand what’s going on (though, from a distance of time, she can). I enjoyed this book for the most part, but the tone of voice confused me a bit; the author used the diction and grammar of a child, yet the story is clearly told when the narrator is much older. Still, I thought that this was a highly charming book. Some of the misspellings had me laughing out loud in some places.

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