Curtis Sittenfeld - Sisterland (2 stars)

A tense, gripping narrative let down by hard-to-swallow racist and homophobic tendencies

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Curtis Sittenfeld - Sisterland

(Doubleday)

When Kate’s identical twin sister, professional psychic Vi Shramm, has a premonition that a giant earthquake is about to strike their hometown of St Louis, Kate begins to set in motion a plan to protect her family. As Vi gets carried away by the media storm surrounding her grave prediction, Kate stocks up on bottled water and nappies and narrates the story of their psychic lives, from their birth, through school and college to the present day.

The approaching earthquake hangs heavily in the air between the sisters of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland. Kate, who is deeply secretive about her psychic abilities, struggles to cope with the limelight shining on her sister in case she too is implicated. Their friends and family divide themselves into two camps: the sceptics that inwardly groan at every mention of it and the believers that plan to leave town.

The novel absolutely simmers with tension – familial tension, sexual tension, racial tension, the crackle of doubt and the fear of disaster – as the predicted date looms. It’s a gripping narrative pull, and the whole novel should be engrossing from beginning to end, particularly for fans of family-driven narratives of the Jodi Picoult ilk.

Flawed characters are often an intrinsic part of fiction, but the problem here is that bohemian Vi is really likeable despite her flaws (vanity, selfishness) and Kate simply isn’t. Kate’s snide judgements regarding her sister’s lifestyle, sexuality and weight (particularly the assertion that Vi has only started to date women as a result of a large weight gain, as 'most lesbians seemed to be more forgiving about appearances than straight men') are hard to swallow, and don’t seem to have much relevance to the plot. Imagine a narrative told from the perspective of Petunia Dursley, Harry Potter’s stuck up muggle aunt, that’s peppered with terms like ‘retard’ and ‘tranny’. The negative impact of these glib statements greatly outweighs the purpose of their inclusion (which is to convey Kate’s concern that Vi’s ‘fickle’ sexuality will upset or confuse their elderly father).

The racial issues – mostly congregated around a multiracial couple that Kate and her husband are friends with – are theoretically handled with more care, but certain examples of racism (a stomach-churning reference to chocolate springs to mind) leaves you unsure whether you're reading a critique of St Louis racism or an example of it.

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