BookBrowse Reviews The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman

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The Sisters Mortland

by Sally Beauman

The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2007, 448 pages

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Beguiling, complex, hauntingly sad, and often dazzlingly funny. A tour de force. Novel

From the book jacket: "If I didn't spy, I'd be in the dark eternally. I live in a maze of unknowing - Maisie's maze - and I hate it. I need to be informed."

Summer 1967: Thirteen-year-old Maisie is at her family's home, a decaying medieval abbey in the heart of rural Suffolk. Lucas, a student and friend, is painting a portrait of Maisie and her older sisters, Julia and Finn. In turn, Maisie embarks upon a portrait of her own: She begins an account of her family and of a summer in which their lives will irrevocably, and terribly, change.

She introduces us to arrogant, beautiful Julia; to intellectual, magnetic Finn; to honorable, conventional Nicholas, a neighbor training to be a doctor; and Gypsy-blooded Daniel Nunn, a village friend to the sisters and a longtime idol of Maisie's.

More than twenty years later, Lucas's now-famous portrait of the three sisters is the centerpiece in a major London retrospective of his work. Daniel, who's risen from rural poverty to a wealthy but soulless and troubled London existence, finds himself still obsessed with the three sisters and haunted by the summer of 1967. Now he embarks on a journey to understand what happened to their lives - and seek redemption for his own.

Comment: The best person to describe The Sisters Mortland (published as The Landscape of Love in some markets including the UK) is the author herself. To quote her essay (which you can read in full at BookBrowse):

"Maisie, who begins the novel is an outsider, a strange prescient thirteen-year-old child - a little girl who talks to the dead, but a girl with a tough, ascerbic mind. Maisie lures the reader in -- I intended a lure -- to what may seem at first another assay at a familiar form, the English country house novel -- a genre with a long tradition, Mansfield Park being at one end of it, and Ian McEwan's Atonement at the other. Maisie's story, her account of that summer, of her family, of the strange house in which they live (it's a medieval Abbey, a former nunnery) and of the portrait an artist friend is painting forms the first part of the novel. She describes her two sisters, clever, evasive Finn and beautiful self-centred Julia, and she struggles to understand the young men staying at the house who are irresistibly drawn to them. But I wanted the reader to see gaps; I wanted readers to decide whether the persuasive Maisie was telling the truth. Like Lucas, Maisie is also painting a portrait of three sisters -- but what does she reveal, and conceal?

Then the novel takes a a sudden unpredictable turn. It breaks with the conventions it seemed to be following, it hurtles off-piste -- there's a substantial time-jump, and I introduce a second voice, that of a man, Daniel Nunn. Dan, a friend of the sisters since early childhood, and worshipped by Maisie, has grown up in the same village but in very different circumstances. He is of Romany descent; his father is a farm labourer, and his grandmother, who brought him up, and claims to have second sight, works at the Abbey as a cleaner -- but Dan, who has won a scholarship to Cambridge, is on the cusp of change, about to abandon his home, his family and his class."

"The reader is right there, in Suffolk, totally absorbed and longing to discover more, seduced by this most dynamic and alluring storyteller." - The Independent (UK).

This review was originally published in February 2006, and has been updated for the February 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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