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Review: Historical fiction gets hairy with the ‘Harristown Sisters’

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The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

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Author Michelle Lovric’s The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters arrived on American bookshelves on Aug. 12, a couple of months after debuting in the U.K. The narrative, which is nearly as lengthy as the titular sister’s hair follows the seven Swiney sisters on a rise from grueling poverty in rural Ireland to fame and fortune in the bustling streets of Dublin and idyllic Venice. However, their ascent from obscurity and social rejection to objects of admiration and desire in the public consciousness - thanks to a stage act that’s bolstered by an simultaneous unleashing of hair that covers the length of their bodies, and then some - is not without its drawbacks, and may ultimately cost the sisters a price greater than they are willing, or able, to pay.

Narrated by Manticory Swiney, one of the seven sisters who make up the Swiney Godivas - Darcy, Berenice, Enda, Oona, Pertilly and Idolatry are the other six - the tale often feels as preoccupied with hair as much as Europe was during the time of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, when the events of the novel take place. Certainly, hair is what distinguishes the poor Swineys and allows them to be propelled to fame, but it often seems a more dominant character than the girls themselves. Though, that’s not to say that the Swiney Godivas are lacking in character. Though Lovric was inspired by the Sutherland sisters, who were indeed a group of seven who rose from poverty to fame and riches on the strength of their hair and accompanying musical act, she gave her fictional brood much animosity amongst themselves and a mysterious paternal situation to make their story even more tragic and bizarre.

Lovric is an accomplished wordsmith, but for all the lovely prose and the historical accuity, reading the book often feels more like a chore than a pleasure. The Swiney’s work is a dark and depressing one. Though Manticory is far from an unsympathetic narrator herself, its hard to feel too deeply for her plight, or her sister’s when the bad blood causing all the problems for the brood is obvious from page one. Some closing revelations do much to bring the tale full circle, but not enough to make the work much more than a too-long, but eloquently phrased book that begs many questions about how awful six-foot long hair that’s fully washed only once a month must smell.

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Title: The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters
Author: Michelle Lovric
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publish date: August 12, 2014
Language: English

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