Review: Two Sisters, Blake Morrison, The Borough Press

Blake Morrison

The Borough Press, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Tolstoy’s adage—that all happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—is as true today as it was when it was first uttered. The truth so motivated the author of Anna Karenina that he resisted attempts to market it as a novel.

For him it was essentially a book about family life. In writing it, he hoped not only to fascinate readers but also to solve his own problems – domestic and artistic. As John Bayley said, “It was no longer a matter of looking for a subject that interested him, but one that obsessed him.”

Although not quite on Tolstoy’s level, Blake Morrison shares his obsession. Originally known as a poet, he achieved one in 1993 with the publication of his memoir And When Did You Last See Last See Your Father?, in which he described, often in distressing detail, a man whose ability to embarrass his son was limitless wider public awareness.

Next came Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002), in which Morrison set his sights on a woman from a large Catholic Irish family who tolerated her husband’s long affair with a close family friend.

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Now we have Two Sisters, which Morrison is reluctant to call the third in a trilogy. This time it’s about his sister Gill and half-sister Josie. When asked by a friend about the book he is writing, he says, as if listing trigger warnings, the topics are “alcoholism, suicide, blindness, depression and grief…” “Jesus,” the friend replies, “who wanna read that?”

He has an argument. Though Morrison insists that Two Sisters isn’t a memoir of misery – “the most despicable of genres” – there’s no denying that there’s a fair amount of misery in it. Guilt too.

While he doesn’t spare Gill and Josie, he’s even harder on himself, constantly wondering if he couldn’t have done more to save his younger siblings. Gill, an alcoholic, drank herself to death after a lifetime of feeling inadequate and unloved. Josie, on the other hand, the unacknowledged product of her mother Beaty’s affair with Morrison’s father, may have committed suicide after tampering with her insulin pump. Alluding to Oscar Wilde, Morrison observes: “Losing a sister can be seen as misfortune, losing two looks as carelessness.”

A note of regret hangs over Two Sisters like a dense cloud about to burst. Gil is the focus of most of his pages. We first meet her when Blake pays a post-Christmas visit to Yorkshire, where he grew up, with his wife and their two children. What is hoped for a cheerful meeting of the Morrison clan is the opposite.

HeraldScotland: Blake Morrison and his sister GillBlake Morrison and his sister Gil (image: free)

For Gill, the only way to deal with the situation is to get blind drunk. While everyone else is inside, she hides in the garage and quenches her anger with a box of Liebfrauenmilch. “What happened, Gil?” Blake asks. “Can’t you see you’re killing yourself?”

“I’m unhappy,” she replies. “Always. That will never change.”

The problem, she adds, isn’t the drink, it’s Blake and her mom and dad. “They gave you everything and nothing to me. you dropped out Not me. You have a life. You show up here twice a year and then fuck off and the rest of the time you don’t think about the rest of us. You hate her any more than I do.”

What follows is a brave, searing, and poignant attempt to unpack such diatribes. Gill’s formative years, Morrison points out unconvincingly, were mostly happy, but things started to go wrong when she sat the eleven-plus exam, which he passed but failed. Although her parents told her that there was no shame in this, it marked a point of disagreement between the siblings.

As a result, Gill was sent to boarding school, which increased her dissatisfaction. Overweight, lonely and bullied, she was invariably the last one picked for games. She just wanted to go unnoticed, but that didn’t happen. Over the years, the swamp of despair deepened.

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During a brief interlude in London, she stole from her roommates and when her father found out about it, he locked her in a basement for 36 hours. “How could he be so crude – so medieval and barbaric – in his methods,” writes Morrison. “And why did Mum let that happen?” Eventually, Gill married and had children, and while she was a good mother, her drinking only got worse. Once her husband locked her in a bedroom to prevent her from drinking alcohol, but she climbed out the window and over the roof. Her daughter, who was taking piano lessons at the time, looked out and saw her mother’s hand dangling from the gutter above the window. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Gill’s sense of estrangement was compounded by the arrival of Beaty and her daughter Josie, who were holidaying with the Morrisons and visiting them at the weekend while Beaty’s husband tended his pub. Such an arrangement seemed guaranteed to cause pain, but Blake’s father, a doctor, seems to have pulled it off with insensitive aplomb.

Was Josie his daughter? DNA tests she asked Blake for proved it was her. He speculates on why Josie took her own life, writing: ‘Would it have happened if her mother had been alive? Or if papa had been – mine, her, our papa? If she called him, would he have done more to help than I did?”

The questions are rhetorical. Nobody can say what would have happened if the circumstances had been different. True to his calling, Blake Morrison seeks solace and enlightenment in literature, but these passages, in which he explores the relationships of Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Charles and Mary Lamb, among others, while interesting, tend to draw the attention of his two sad distract sisters.

Why, he asks, did Gill drink like so many people who have alcoholics in their circle? He lists “some tentative reasons,” none of which help much. “Because? There is no because.” Review: Two Sisters, Blake Morrison, The Borough Press

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