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August 03, 2006

The novels of Ruth Elwin Harris

At the time I read the first three of Ruth Elwin Harris's novels, the fourth hadn't been published, and the friend who pressed the others on me expressed doubts that it ever would be. I was reminded of the books a few weeks ago because my daughter was given a set of three children's books by three authors all set in the same house at different historical periods. They weren't particularly good, feeling more like a repackaging exercise for low-grade historical information; but they reminded me of The Sisters of the Quantock Hills.

The first three books each tell the same story from the point of view of one of the four Purcell sisters, orphaned in 1910. Although each book extends the story, the main elements of the tale are the same.

Sarah's story comes first. She's the youngest of the sisters, and through the book she observes the changing relationships of those around her, missing much, and growing up through the Great War. You learn much in this about the romance between the eldest sister, Frances, and the son of the girls' guardian; but you don't fully understand the motivations and behaviours of either because you are seeing them through the eyes of a small child. The second book tells Frances' story; in this case the lack of comprehension is because Frances is depicted as an outstanding artist; determined and obsessed, but also petulant and unreasonable.

The third of the quartet felt in many ways the cleverest for me as the story filled out. Julia, the second sister, works as a nurse during the war. You know, of course, by now, the fate of several of the characters, clear from the first two books. But these books are not primarily driven by their plots but by the surprises inherent in learning more about the relationships from other angles. And Julia, who neither Sarah nor Frances really describe in detail, turns out to have all manner of hidden depths.

My friend's fear about the fourth book -- that Harris had run out of new things to tell us about the same time period -- was largely correct; most of the action of the fourth book takes place just before the start of WWII; and although the characters from the earlier books cast their shadows over the story, much the same tale could have been told without the earlier books. Gwen, the third sister, has spent much of her life working the garden of their home under the tutelage of the head gardener at the local manorhouse. On his deathbed, he gives her his orchid collection. It's a flower she has never liked, thinking them showy and troublesome, but she doesn't feel she can refuse. Caring for the orchids, however, leads her to enrich her life in many other ways.

Harris's determination to tell a different story this time leads her to cut some unacceptable corners; most notably when sixteen years of history for one sister is dismissed in one line. The first three books set up an expectation that you will learn more of the story that has already been told; but that is only a minor part of the fourth book.

These books tackle some very big themes; the impact of war and the differing reactions to it, aging and loss, the role of women and the expectations of people about that role. They do it deftly for the most part (the exception is probably some of the politics, where the definitions are unsubtle). Theyre a joy to read.

These books are aimed at teenagers but could be managed by ambitious readers before then.

Posted by Alison Scott at August 3, 2006 01:31 PM


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