Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.