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The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman

The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman stars a rather incestuous group of friends made up of a triumvirate of sisters and three male friends.  The story is atmospheric, lyrical, gothic and complicated.  Okay complicated might be putting it mildly describing the dynamics running beneath the surface of this tragic family and its slightly dysfunctional entanglements binding them one to another that ultimately rend them asunder and estranged.  The story is divided into three parts told from three different perspectives--that of the youngest sister, Maisie; Daniel Nunn, the poor, village boy of Romany descent who's a childhood friend of the family; and Julia, the eldest of the sisters.

The story opens in the seemingly idyllic summer of 1967, but appearances are deceiving and when the summer's through, a summer in which change is expected as childhood friends grow up and strike out on their own, the Mortland family and those who loved them will never be the same.  There are three Mortland sisters: Julia, the eldest, who is both arrogant and at times cruel; Fin, the middle sister, who is loved since childhood by Daniel Nunn; and Maisie, the youngest, who feels invisible, is described as 'touched' and communes with the ghosts of the dead.

Maisie begins the story in '67--she's thirteen.  She sees all, observes all, but does she understand all that she sees and observes?  Clearly eccentric, possibly 'touched' as they say, she does after all see and communicate with the centuries dead nuns who once inhabited the converted abbey that her family now owns.  A lover of stories, she likes nothing better than the ones told her, by her mother, by her grandfather and others even though she's beginning to tease out the bits of truth hidden beneath layers upon layers of embellishments.  And there are also the stories Maisie tells--she tells them to show people the truth.  That summer there are childhood friends staying with the family--Daniel, and Lucas, an artist picked up by Daniel and Fin at university and whose portrait of the three sisters painted that summer will go on to become famous.  There's also Nick, Daniel's best friend from childhood, son of the village doctor who is himself studying medicine.  Two of these men love two of the sisters in their own ways and will be bound to them in the wake of the tragic end to that summer.

Flash forward two decades and Daniel picks up the narrative thread.  He's disconnected and estranged from both the Mortland sisters and his friends, Nick and Lucas, and he's clearly destroyed by the events of that summer and the experiences of the ensuing years as well as the ghost of what might have been had it not all gone wrong.  He's fast spiraling down into a self-destructive, suicidal haze of drugs and alcohol.  His career's imploded and he's alienated himself from all colleagues and friends.  Daniel runs into Nick, by chance, at the exhibit featuring an introspective of all Lucas' work, among its featured pieces is the now famous portrait of the three Mortland sisters.  Nick, too, is clearly unhappy with how his life's turned out though he's kept his destruction somewhat more self contained.  All this unhappiness for Nick and for Dan can be traced back to that last summer--a summer that still hides devastating secrets, a summer that has bred years of lies.

In the wake of his meeting with Nick, Daniel chucks the drugs and the alcohol and turns his sights on that long ago summer day--the one when Maisie fell--determined to remember it all, analyze every last memory and detail, determined to tease out just why and how it all went wrong.  Was the fall an accident? Was it deliberate?  If so, how far in advance had it been planned?   In these answers, Daniel hopes to find some form of redemption.  Instead the answers that Daniel finds are to questions he hasn't asked and in these answers Daniel finds neither redemption nor comfort because that last summer isn't done dealing tragedy and heartbreak.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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