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C Pam Zhang on her Favourite Siblings in Fiction

Posted on 9th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

How Much of These Hills is Gold, the remarkable debut novel by C Pam Zhang, tracks a sibling relationship across Gold Rush-era America, exploring the vexed bonds of sisterhood and how tragedy impacts upon the family unit. In this exclusive piece, the author highlights her favourite representations of siblings in fiction and discusses exactly what makes them so special.   

A taut line runs between siblings. No matter their ages or circumstances, despite distance and because of intimacy, this line hums, ready to be plucked. How strange it is to have someone who is inevitably a point of comparison, even if that comparison is in the form of contrasts. How does one’s growth shape and warp itself around the other’s, like two young trees struggling upwards for light? Sibling relationships are fertile ground for storytelling; here are a few with particular energy.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

There are not one but two pairs of conflicted brothers in Steinbeck’s novel, which is inspired by the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel. Emotions are appropriately grand in scope. There are grim suicides, brutal assaults, seductions, plots, heartbreaks, power struggles, betrayals. Though the one-dimensional nature of certain characters – including an almost comedically evil seductress – can be grating, there’s no denying the ambition of this book. At its best it hums with the agony of brothers who are joined by brutality and dark history, and the question of whether they can ever break the cycle.

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One of Steinbeck’s touchstone novels, East of Eden is a grand family saga which explores themes almost biblical in their intensity. Through multiple generations of two families, Steinbeck crafts a brooding masterpiece of familial rivalry and passionate, self-destructive love.
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Sisters by Daisy Johnson

This novel is deliciously dark. We are thrown into the mind of July, who lives in thrall to the twisted, angry, magnetic September. It’s September who has inherited the worst qualities of their departed father, and July becomes the object of September’s tenderest impulses as well as her punching bag. Passive July isn’t quite capable of seeing how toxic this relationship is – but the reader can, and the horror ratchets up. Meanwhile, in the background, the mother makes art based on her two daughters. This is a creepy and claustrophobic novel with a surprise twist.

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A uniquely disturbing novel from the author of Everything Under, Sisters explores the dark side of sibling devotion, striking a fine balance between character study and psychological horror.
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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

If you need a palate cleanser after the brooding pairs in the above two books, then there is no better rendition of the depth of sibling love than that between sisters Elf and Yoli. There’s no questioning the love that shimmers between the sisters, who also share a language of humor (the book is quietly hilarious). The one real source of conflict is pianist Elf’s quiet commitment to killing herself. This novel is rich with affection, and yet this question hangs over each page: is love enough? How do we love those who will leave us?

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By turns grimly humorous and devastatingly poignant, Toews critically lauded novel is a bittersweet dissection of sisterly love and the ends to which that profound emotion can drive siblings. Delicate, absorbing and divinely witty, All My Puny Sorrows is an exquisitely poised piece of work.
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Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura is a brunette tomboy prone to getting into scrapes; Mary is a prim blonde who’s almost disgustingly well-behaved. There’s a pleasing simplicity – the light and the dark – in this children’s series. Laura and Mary were my introduction to foils in literature, long before I learned the word foil. As teenagers, Laura becomes Mary’s ‘“eyes’” after the elder is blinded. It’s deeply satisfying to watch the girls learn to respect one another’s differences, and to chart the nuances of their relationship across books and years.

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The second book in Wilder’s beloved children’s saga is where the classic series really takes flight. Glorious rural escapism with real heart and warmth, the Ingalls family’s pioneering American journey endures as a joyous, richly atmospheric novel.
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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Here’s another book of siblings and absences. If it’s hard to compete with a living sibling, then how much harder is it to find yourself fighting to distinguish yourself from a dead one? Denver finds herself in this strange position when her murdered baby sister – unnamed at the time of her death years earlier – returns to haunt the family in a corporeal guise. At first Denver buries herself in the giddy joy of having a co-conspirator, but eventually must remedy damage the ghost-baby-woman does to their mother. This sibling relationship is underdiscussed, in my opinion, given readers’ usual focus on the relationship between mother and ghost-daughter.

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Part ghost story, part profound reflection on the evils of slavery, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece synthesises myriad themes and ideas into a scorching, emotionally devastating narrative.
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