Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Dark Sisters by Helen Ferguson (Anna Kavan)

I was so very, very lucky to be able to get this book. I had to Interlibrary Loan it from Dublin. The book is a bit rare because it was only printed once. The book is in great condition though, puts modern printing to shame!

I was really interested to see what Kavan, since that is the name she changed to later I’ll use it here, wrote next after reading The Charmed Circle. Wow is it good. Again we are dealing with family, two sisters, who are inexplicably tied to each other. I just finished Night and Day by Virgina Woolf and I’m finding these books and the last book I reviewed very similar. The books are about what happens when you don’t actually tell people what you are thinking!

Emerald and Karen live in an apartment together. Emerald supports Karen by modelling. This is an excellent description of Karen:

“Karen could be trusted never to do anything efficiently. She had a genius for incompetence that maddened her sister. At times it really drove her almost to madness. But in spite of her resentment and perpetual sense of grievance that it aroused in her she could not resist. Emerald’s soul rebelled always with bitterness against the helplessness in Karen that forced her into every leading role, saddling her for ever with the entire responsibility of their joint lives. The responsibility was nauseous to her and yet unspeakably dear; a sweet torture. She could never forgive Karen for inflicting it. She was passionately devoted to her sister.” (10)

Karen always lives in a dream world, rarely worrying about how she is fed or what will happen from day to day. Instead she is thinking about pixies in the woods and her embroidery.

“In spite of her helplessness there was a certain isolation and self-sufficiency about Karen. With practical things she was unsuccessful because she had no will to succeed. Such things were unreal and unimportant to her. She seemed scarcely alive to reality. Yet she had some vague life of her own, apart and lonely like the sea. And if she was troubled by her sister’s irritation, it as only faintly, superficially, as the sea is troubled. " (11)

Emerald on the other hand is realistic and active:

“Emerald, as the elder, had long assume, half avid, half reluctant, the direction and responsibility of their lives. In her the sound heritage of san-living ancestors battle, successfully in the main, against a dangerous imaginative streak bequeathed by the mother. Mainly, a wholesome zest triumphed. Inaction was distasteful to her. It pleased her to work, to be always doing things. She saw life in terms of action. But psychologically she inclined to extravagance.” (29)

In the course of the book she tries very hard to seduce a man into marriage, because she feels it would be best for them. She knows that she would not be happy with the man and his way of life, but she felt that responsibility to take care of them. This is only one of her schemes. She seems to go from one man to another, depending on who is giving her attention. One moment she is trying to capture Edmond and the next Morgan. Her vanity gets the most of her many times in this book.

The relationship between Edmond and Morgan is interesting. Both have money, though Edmond lives in the country on a great Estate and Morgan in the city. Edmond is big and country like, Morgan slight and cultivated. I’ve never read a book of this age that so clearly shows homosexual love. It is never openly acknowledged. But the love the Morgan has for Edmond is not just friendship. There is a real caring, and Kavan writes about physical contact between them that usually you would read about between man and woman.

“…he laid his hand caressingly on Edmond’s hand that was resting on the table beside him.

Edmond looked down at the hand lying on his own. In the pinkish glow of lamplight, it was wonderfully white and frail, as if refined away, with the blue veins showing their faint tracery. He frowned in bewilderment. He really did not understand his friend; and because he didn’t understand, he must always be on the defensive, a trifle suspicious of him.” (136)

The writing is well done, Edmond never really understands his friend even at the end. But then again, none of them understand each other. That is the problem. This is why relationships never seem to work in this book. The reader knows what each person is thinking, and like most of us the thoughts can be confusing. One moment Karen is delighted that Edmond is paying her attention, the next she can’t stand the fact that he is so big and clumsy. Almost in the same breath these thoughts are expressed by all of the characters in this book. For example Karen thinks this about Edmond:

“There was a certain kindliness about him that was rather touching. He seemed to watch her with an almost fatherly solicitude. It was difficult to withstand his gentle kindliness. Her heart warmed towards him. But then, all at once, she shuddered as though he had thrown a shadow upon her. Again she saw him as a heavy, indifferent man who encroached upon her with his imperceptiveness, inaccessibility, out of her secret world; to force her into contact with him. And this she could not tolerate. There could be no contact between them.” (99)

What changed her feelings towards him? Nothing that actually happens, her thoughts just flow from thinking about his kindness to his indifference.

When considering these reactions to relationship, it seems to me like they are just trying to keep people at arms length. Emerald and Karen neither want to really give in to anyone. So once they start liking someone, or see someone responding to them…they cut them off. They even do it to each other. Because of the way they act, others around them act defensively and have the same thought patterns. If the characters actually told each other about their feelings then she would have to make a definitely decision. Once someone actually tells Emerald that he loves her, she automatically runs. She can’t handle the truth any more then she can handle not knowing.

To let you know a bit more about the plot, the sisters go to Edmond’s for Christmas. Morgan is also there with many rowdy relatives of Edmond’s. Emerald first goes between liking both men to deciding the best thing for her and Karen is to marry Edmond. So she tries to lay her trap, but she can’t quite deny herself and the fact that she doesn’t really like him. He also feels threatened that Karen and Edmond like each other. (Again, if they had just talked she would have seen that Karen had no more liking for Edmond then Emerald did really.) Emerald gets very jealous and angry with Edmonds brother-in-law, who accuses her of doing exactly what she has been trying to do. Emerald can’t take that she has been found out, so she decides to leave. She tells Karen to pack up they are leaving, and Karen decides she doesn’t want to be told what to do. She refuses to leave until the next morning, and the sisters depart very angry with each other. Karen didn’t think that Emerald would really leave, but she does. For the first time you actually see Karen taking in what is going on around her and her own welfare. She crumbles. What is she to do with out Emerald? Edmond comes to see her and he falls in “love” with her. He thinks he is in love, but the reader knows that really he likes to be needed and Karen needs him. He promises to take care of her. Over the next few days he tries desperately to get her to show feeling for him, but she just can’t pretend. She knows she owes him a lot so she makes the right noises, but he can tell she doesn’t really mean it.

While this is going on, Emerald goes back to her life and finds it very difficult not to have Karen around. She finds her life shabby and boring compared to her selective memory of what life was like in the country. Her friend Carew takes her out and ends up confessing his love. She runs saying scathing things to him because she doesn’t know how to deal with true feelings. Morgan comes to her rescue and they make a trip to Edmonds to check on Karen. Morgan talks to Edmond and finds that his friend is very unhappy with the situation with Karen. Though Emerald at first tries to stay in the car, she found herself drawn to the house. She promises herself that if Karen will forgive her for leaving, she will never leave her again. She will take her back to their old life, and will take care of her forever. Karen does forgive her, and twisting the knife in a bit, Edmond tries to convince her to stay. He has decided that he wanted Emerald all the time, not Karen. Fickle, yes, but they all act that way. They are desperate to get on to some life they think is out there. Emerald, remembering the cross she is baring of promising to take Karen back to their old life and take care of her, refuses. They head back into town.

Emerald of course is very bitter…as she was to begin with…with having to take care of Karen. She thought she could go back to the old life, but seeing what life could have been like makes it even harder for her. She finds out that Karen hasn’t been as true to her sister as Emerald has, well Emerald never explained her promise to Karen…so how was Karen to know she was causing so much grief? Karen and Morgan have started to see each other when Emerald has been out. They have found that they are very suited to each other. They are both a bit other worldly and Morgan appreciates her dreaminess and doesn’t see it as a slight to his ego. At the very end, Carew comes back to see Emerald. The book ends with him coming to visit and her unexpectedly and she excepts him into her apartment.

The book ends different then A Charmed Circle, even though Karen and Emerald are still living together, the reader does know that things are in the process of changing. I felt very relieved actually. You hate to see people going round in round in circles and never learning from that what they need.

Over all a great read, and if you can get your hands on a copy…even though I’ve given away the plot etc…you might find it interesting.

1 comment:

Bybee said...

I read Let Me Alone many years ago. It was a Helen Ferguson book, but the main character was Anna Kavan.

I'd love to read another book by HF/AK. Thanks for the review.