Tags: audiobook, book review, excellent narration, fiction, Gothic Fiction, Juliet Mills, lepidopterist, mental illness, moths, mystery, Poppy Adams, pupal soup, The Sister, unreliable narrator
The Sister by Poppy Adams, read by Juliet Mills
Virginia Stone, a 70 year old spinster, lives alone with her moths at Bulburrow Court, her family’s mansion. She is an eccentric old woman who grew up during WWII and its aftermath. She is peculiar, most especially about time and tea. To say she is set in her ways would be an understatement. When her younger sister Vivien returns to Bulburrow Court after leaving the family home and her sister for London nearly 50 years earlier, Ginny reflects on her life, from her alcoholic mother Maud, her lepidopterist father Clive, who mentored her in the study of moths, and her love for her absent sister. She approaches her history with the same unemotional scientific eye that she uses with her moths and other insects. It doesn’t take long to start questioning Ginny’s reliability as a daughter, sister, and narrator. This novel held my interest from the beginning with Vivi’s tragic, near-fatal fall and the numerous mysteries and questions that continued to come up to the surface.
Poppy Adams is an extremely detailed writer. Her use of entomology and the study of the moth clearly stem from a great deal of research. While Ginny loves to go into lengthy and often gory detail about her science, the minutia she shares with the reader provides important insights into Ginny’s morality, mental state, and obsessive compulsiveness. There is an interesting passage about a colony of ants taken over by a butterfly larva that still has me thinking about Ginny and what the truth about her family might have been.
This is the first audio book I truly enjoyed. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July and Savannah by John Jakes (which I couldn’t finish) were complete flops for me – both because of the narration. In addition to the story itself, The Sister had what the others so far have not – the perfect reader. Juliet Mills’ voice and reading was such a complement to Ginny that I can’t image there being a more perfect vocal performer for the novel. The way she enunciated “pupal soup” throughout the novel was both sickening and dead on for Ginny’s character. She expertly read dialog for the other characters as well. There was a scene where Maud, drunk, could not hold her tongue to Ginny about her opinions of Albert, Vivi’s boyfriend. That exchange between Maud and Ginny was wonderful and riveting. Although I’m tempted to read the physical book the next time around, I can’t imagine reading it without hearing Mills’ voice.
This novel, because it is narrated by Ginny, does not provide answers to all of the questions that are raised. Who exactly is the sister? What exactly did the rest of the family and the village of Bulburrow know about Ginny that she did not? If she has been mentally ill her entire life, why in the world would Vivi and Albert entrust her with their family in the way that they did? Did she truly carry on Clive’s work after he retired? What exactly went on with Dr. Moyse? At first, this made the ending fall a little flat for me. However, upon further reflection, it would be impossible to know what Ginny did not and this is made even that much more difficult as she had a talent for blocking out the unpleasant portions of stories and conversations. Truly, this novel is open-ended, allowing the reader to discern the truth from the delusion. The Sister invites additional readings. It would be very interesting to read this a second time to see what I might have missed the first time. While under no circumstances would I ever sit down for tea with Ginny Stone, I’d love to study her in more depth. She is a fascinating character whose voice, like that of Vida Winter from The Thirteenth Tale and many of Patrick McGrath’s narrators, will stay with me for a long time to come.