Tuesday 31 October 2023

Review: Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, Rachel Cantor (2023)

You might be surprised that my review of Rachel Cantor’s 2023 novel Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, a retelling of the Bronte siblings’ lives, isn’t part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series. After all, those are the blog posts in which I dissect works of fiction written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. However, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, while it is a book about the Brontes, isn’t set in the nineteenth century at all. 

Instead, the sisters (originally five in number, but, for much of the novel, three) and their brother, whose names are constantly shifting, live not in Victorian Haworth, but in a city apartment building in a near-contemporary era. They navigate corporate jobs, as well as nannying. They interact with their doorman and, early in the book, with child protective services. 

Confused? You may well be for much of the novel. Every chapter takes a different form—e.g., as a script, a letter, a diary paper. The point of view shifts from sibling to sibling and, at each break in the narrative, we are asked to take a plunge into a different reality. Reader, I loved it.

As someone who immersed herself in the lives and works of the Brontes, as I researched and wrote my 2020 novel, Bronte’s Mistress, rarely have I felt so much that a book was written for me. There’s no spoon-feeding of readers here. This is definitely not the book to pick up if you’re learning about the lives of literature’s most famous family for the first time. But if, like me, you’re a Bronte fanatic, who knows the timeline of the siblings lives like the back of your hand, and who’s very familiar with their works and juvenilia, you’re in for a treat. 

What Cantor does so well is capture the closeness within the family and the imaginative childhood play that the Brontes continued well into adulthood. This is a novel about siblings who are obsessed with words and who use them to construct a sort of folie a quatre. And it’s about the conflict that occurs when those who have grown up in a separate world interact with the “real” world. 

I doubt that Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, despite the Brontes’ continued popularity, will reach a wide readership. But I hope that it reaches and delights the right readership.

Have you read the novel? I’d love to hear what you think! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want monthly emails about the Brontes, my writing and more? Sign up to my email newsletter here.

Saturday 7 October 2023

Neo-Victorian Voices: Daughters of Nantucket, Julie Gerstenblatt (2023)

Welcome back to my Neo-Victorian Voices series, where I review books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first. For the second time in this series, following my review of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars (2013) in 2019, we’re back in nineteenth-century Nantucket. This time I’m reviewing Julie Gerstenblatt’s 2023 Daughters of Nantucket, which follows several women’s lives on the island in the lead up to and aftermath of the Great Fire of 1846.

Eliza is a whaling captain’s wife, who’s struggling financially and emotionally following her husband’s long absence at sea. Maria is an astronomer and curator, who’s hiding her sexuality. And Meg is a pregnant Black businesswoman, who’s still fighting for equality, although she was born free.

Gerstenblatt uses the three women’s different perspectives and experiences to bring the island as it was during this period to life. Only one of them (Maria) shares a name with a true historical figure, although all three were born out of research. The stakes of the interwoven narratives were high and the women’s personalities were distinct enough to maintain reader interest throughout.

What I most enjoyed about the book were the details that were clearly part of Gerstenblatt’s research. I’ve visited the Whaling Museum on the island and so it was great to see the true story of Nantucket’s commercial and social history told there reinvented in fiction. I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, with the countdown to the fire ramping up tension and keeping us guessing about what would happen to our characters. 

What I found less successful was the engagement with social justice themes, especially related to race and sexuality. There is so much rich history in Nantucket about the island’s Black population, but the characters in Daughters of Nantucket at times seemed to speak with twenty-first-century voices, rather than embodying the attitudes of progressive islanders in the 1840s. 

All in, though, Gerstenblatt’s love for Nantucket and its history shines through in this entertaining read. If you want to lie to yourself that it’s still summer, consider picking up a copy and taking an imaginative trip to the beaches of New England. 

What novel would you like me to read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to stay up to date with all my reviews? Make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter here.