Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

You see, Nessa and I are more than just sisters. We are different--exceptional. 

So writes Virginia Woolf to a friend in Priya Parmar's captivating new novel, VANESSA AND HER SISTER (Ballantine, 2014). Exceptional Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell certainly were--exceptional for their contributions to the world of art and letters, exceptional for their pivotal roles in the intellectual circle that gathered at their home, exceptional in the importance each held in the other's emotional life.

But whereas Virginia thrives on being more than "just sisters" with her sibling, the Vanessa Parmar presents in her novel would relish the more circumscribed role. Beneath the broader story Parmar paints with verve of the bohemian escapades and intellectual ebullience of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, the sisters' conflict--Virginia's determination to retain Vanessa's complete attention and Vanessa's desperation to escape this obsessive preoccupation--builds to an agonizing climax.

Vanessa Bell (1902) by George Beresford
Vanessa, an accomplished painter, narrates the novel as a private journal covering the period 1905 to 1912. Recently orphaned, the four young and wealthy Stephens siblings set up house in a past-its-prime neighborhood of London. Just as the neighborhood has shed the glory of its Victorian heyday, the group of artists, writers, students and critics that frequents the house eagerly dispenses with stuffy convention. They keep mixed company, drop in unannounced, refuse to dress for dinner, and call each other by their given names. Couples--both hetero- and homosexual--form and reform at will. Applying this unfettered enthusiasm to their various pursuits--Virginia, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey to literature; Vanessa, Duncan Grant, Robert Fry, and Clive Bell to visual art; John Maynard Keyes to economics--they make their mark in the more avant-garde fringes of their respective fields. The group feeds off the confrontation of ideas and personalities that occurs at the Stephens' drawing room. Vanessa, with straightforward level-headedness and unaffected frankness, anchors the group, while brilliant, fragile Virginia provides the animating spark--when the mood and inclination strikes her.

Virginia Woolf (1902) by George Beresford
Virginia's emotional fragility has long been Vanessa's prime worry. The writer has had previous nervous breakdowns, and Vanessa is ever wary of seeing her sister succumb yet again. Virginia thrives on being the center of attention and is particularly adept at manipulating her brothers, sister and friends so as to remain there. She wields an unhealthy hegemony over Vanessa, who recognizes the danger in her sister's constant need for more--more affection, more contact, more safety, more secrets--yet has had little reason, or willingness, to deny her. Things change when Vanessa falls in love with Clive Bell and contemplates marriage. The exclusivity she and Clive share necessitates distance from Virginia, but Virginia refuses to retreat. She fights abandonment the only way she knows--by claiming what Vanessa has for herself. Will Vanessa realize what is happening before it is too late? More importantly, will she risk her sister's mental stability in order to secure her own happiness?

With keen psychological insight, Parmar explores the sisters' interdependence and follows the trail of need and betrayal to its unfortunate end. In so doing, she finds an inviting entry into the densely populated and much examined world of Bloomsbury. The sisters' conflict mirrors the larger questions of the age, illustrating the clash of theory and practice in the arena of values--for all their eagerness to jettison conventional roles and traditional virtues during debate, the characters find little comfort in their bohemian free-spiritedness when it comes to the concreteness of their particular lives. Based on extensive research and thorough familiarity with the historical characters' private papers, VANESSA AND HER SISTER delves deep into the sisters' psyches to elucidate the cause of their estrangement. Beautifully executed and ever convincing, Parmar's novel found a ready place on my list of the year's best reads.

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