REVIEWED BY DYMPHNA CROWE
Blake Morrison Two Sisters (The Borough Press: 2023) and Skin & Blister (Mariscat Press: 2023)
This is a review of Two Sisters, the third in a series of family memoirs, and Skin & Blister, a book of poetry. The two sisters of the memoir are Morrison’s sister Gill, sixteen months his junior, and Josie, his half sister, born of a long-term affair between his father and a family friend. The two earlier memoirs revealed previously hidden family secrets; the first, When Did You Last See Your Father (1993) followed the death of his father. The second was entitled Things My Mother Never Told Me (2003) and revealed the secret past of his deceased, self-effacing mother. Two Sisters was written following the shocking and sad death of his sister Gill. Josie, in poor health, had already taken her own life, shortly after discovering her true parentage.
Greatly affected by Gill’s death, Morrison wanted to understand why both sisters died ‘self-destructively, before their time’ (p.8). He read voraciously about other sibling relationships and includes several chapters about famous brother and sister relationships in the book. I was carried along by Gill’s story; Josie plays a smaller part, ‘A half sister, whereas Gill was full’ (p.8). He vividly describes his and Gill’s shared childhood experiences, presenting the negative aspects too. As he explains, ‘When you grow up with a lie, as my sisters did, it’s important to be truthful’ (p.8). But the narrative about Gill was interrupted with chapters from his research, which sometimes felt intrusive; the snapshots of other people’s lives could not compete with Gill’s compelling story.
Childhood experiences cast a long shadow. Morrison recognises that he was the favoured firstborn child of the family, a son and the brightest one in a patriarchal and academic household. Gill was not academic and, while Blake thrived, she struggled first in school and later in adult life, as she became increasingly addicted to alcohol. She also had two degenerative eye conditions which led to progressive blindness. Gill always felt she came second to her brother and that she wasn’t ‘seen’ by her father. The two sisters had in common that neither received the recognition they craved from their father. Josie was a great favourite of his but was never acknowledged as his daughter.
Skin and Blister, a book of poetry, was also published this year, though Morrison originally wrote it in 2021. The poems focus directly on Gill and are very accessible, very personal and moving. This book is a tribute to Gill and addressed directly to her. The poems show the closeness of their shared childhood, though their lives later diverged. ‘It’s a struggle to describe our rapport. / We weren’t close; we were never not close’ (p.11). He wants to explore, ‘how we diverged after starting so twinned’ (p.27). He tries to capture the essence of his sister but there are some questions that cannot be answered. Gill would not have answered them when she was alive and now she is dead. ‘So much held in, so much kept back, so much’ (p.27). But readers are left with a wonderful elegy to a much loved sister.
Blake Morrison came to SBL on 11 May 2023. You can find the summary in this edition of BookTalk.