It’s curious to think about the strange bond that we share with our romantic partner’s exes. Nobody else knows our partner so intimately in their habits, strengths, faults, secrets and sexual proclivities. Yet these exes typically remain people entirely unknown to us in reality (unless our partners happen to still see them frequently). So it’s fascinating how Lily Tuck writes about this unique bond in her new novel “Sisters” where the unnamed narrator describes her preoccupation with her husband’s ex-wife. Although they barely ever encounter each other in real life this ex-wife’s presence is felt everywhere from the memories her husband maintains to the teenage step children in the house. She feels oddly bound to the ex-wife like a sister, but her feelings are largely antagonistic and competitive. Tuck writes about the narrator’s obsession with this ex-wife in deft, sharp prose which allude to her complicated emotions rather than spelling them out. This is powerfully effective and the fast-paced story works up to a gripping climax.
It feels like Tuck’s method of writing this novel is particularly modern in the manner of Rachel Khong or Jenny Offill. The prose are so pared down that some pages only contain a single sentence which nonetheless resonates like the force of a great bell chime. Also, the story builds up indirectly where the narrator often goes off on tangents describing research about a particular thing like the romantic entanglements of writers Mario Vargas Llosa or Vaclav Havel or a line from a Philip Roth novel. It’s clever the way this italicised research will follow directly on from a point in the story. For instance, the narrator’s step-daughter describes how her mother recently had a romantic getaway with a man in a chateau in France and the next page gives a marketing description of the chateau in a way that the narrator has obviously sought out. The fact that she furtively tries to recreate a three dimensional idea of the ex-wife’s life betrays more about her own character and preoccupations than it does about the ex-wife. This assembly of fragments tantalizingly combine to a portrait of obsession and insecurity.
Whenever the narrator refers to the ex-wife she describes her as she or her in italicised writing. The italics saturate these pronouns with so many conflicted feelings it’s like you can hear the narrator saying them aloud with sarcastic or hate-filled venom. Yet, also lingering behind her musings about this ex-wife and her husband’s first marriage there is a melancholy and longing to understand the man she’s with. It betrays an aching insecurity about the stability of their relationship. “Sisters” has a haunting quality to it in the way it describes our inability to really know or understand our romantic partners because there will always be aspects of their past and present unknown to us. For such a brief novel, it’s especially impactful and filled with deep-feeling resonance. Although this is her seventh published novel, it’s the first book I’ve read by Lily Tuck and I’m now keen to read more.