Advanced reader copy received from the publisher via NetGalley
Release date(UK): 12 February 2014
Vanessa and her Sister is the story of sisters Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (or Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf). Charting the events of their lives between 1905 – 1912 through Vanessa’s fictionalised diary, Priya Parmar brings life to two historical women and their eclectic circle of friends, commonly known now as the Bloomsbury Group.
I went into this book pretty much blind. I had heard a few people mention Virginia Woolf – particularly her suicide in 1941 – and I’d read a few chapters and excerpts from her books, but I have to admit that I have never read one of her novels in its entirety and I knew nothing of the Bloomsbury Group. Now I want to know everything, so I’d say it’s done it’s job as good historical fiction.
Through a diary format littered with genuine postcards, letters and receipts from the time, Parmar provides a vivid portrayal of the two sisters, their family and their circle of friends. The two sisters are almost polar opposites; Vanessa seems kind, reliable and grounded whilst Virginia is portrayed as a whirlwind of emotions; capriciously flitting between charming and witty and possessive, manipulative and wild.
The novel moves a little slowly to start with as Parmar sets the scene, but I can’t complain as it’s a great scene and it’s brought to life wonderfully – London in 1905, a time of change, and the characters are amongst one of the most radical and forward-thinking groups around. It made me realise how long people have been trying to oppose tradition for. The concepts of free-loving and ‘modern marriages’ certainly did not start in the swinging sixties.
Each of the characters is compelling – there were those I loved and those I loved to hate. Whilst you may think it’s all talk about art and literature and ‘at-homes’ to start with, stay with it because this book gets good. Really good. As Vanessa falls in love and marries, she inadvertently triggers actions which will cause a tension within the group which builds with every page, whilst always maintaining a sense of middle-class refinement. Parmar draws the lines clearly here, and whilst I don’t know if her portrayals are historically accurate, I knew whose side I was on.
Many books have been written on the subject of Virginia Woolf, particularly focusing on her suicide. This book doesn’t go for the obvious, and in choosing the time period and point of view she did, Parmar turns well-worn historical events on their head, resulting in something compulsive, believable and new.