Book Review: Lily Tuck’s Sisters is a searing novella about an insecure second wife

When The Four Tops sang about “Standing in the shadows of love” Lily Tuck’s Sisters wasn’t quite what they had in mind. And yet, this novella by a National Book Award recipient feels like it could use that track as an anthem. This story is a tense piece about a second wife who is obsessed by the imagined presence of her husband’s first wife and the impact it is having on her mind and marriage. The result is a short yet sharp book that packs lots of emotion and intensity into its 156 pages.

This story is told from the first person perspective of an unidentified woman who the reader learns is a petite, dark-haired, dog-lover. The narrator is haunted by her husband’s ex-wife to the point of obsession with a good dose of paranoia thrown in as well. The ex – who is only referred to by the italicised words “She” or “Her” – has left behind some big shoes. She is an accomplished pianist, a blonde cat-lover and someone who the narrator feels was positively lovely. The narrator is insecure about herself and feels inferior by comparison to this other woman. Or it could just be that the narrator’s own relationship is on the rocks as she is plagued by her own feelings of anxiety, doubt and mistrust.

Tuck’s prose is very economical in length, but what it lacks in stature it more than makes up for in depth. We learn little fragments of information about this nuclear family. We learn that the narrator inherited two adult step-children when she married, as well as a husband who travels a lot for work. Tuck also weaves in lots of references to art and music including an interesting aside about Rodin and his scorned lover, Camille Claudel. While Tuck takes the narrator to the absolute extremes of obsessiveness and hypothesising about the husband’s ex, you can’t help but feel like there are some rich little kernels of truth to be found here. Hands up who hasn’t ever wondered about a partner’s former flame before?

The narrator delivers the story almost as a stream of consciousness. This means that the topics can jump around a bit but Tuck has handled this weighty subject matter with a deft hand. It feels like no paragraph is wasted, it all adds to the colourful mosaic that forms with respect to these characters, who feel so real you can almost believe that you can touch them.

This kind of story won’t appeal to everyone. There will be some readers who will want more action or greater detail, particularly with respect to the ending because this feels a tad rushed. But as far as quick, nuanced reads go about marriage, jealously and love this seems unsurpassed and quite simply, lovely.

Lily Tuck’s Sisters is out now through Text Publishing.


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