Sunday, March 31, 2013
First Published: 1978
I have the novel the Bad Sister in the Emma Tennant omnibus of the same name. The Omnibus also contains the novels Two Women of London and Wild Nights. This review is looking at the Bad Sister only and I must thank my friend Leila who put me on to the book.
The story is actually a female centric reworking of the 1824 novel by James Hogg, “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”. Though whilst the earlier novel concerned a world of angels, devils and possession, this novel concerns vampirism – though, in some senses, it is almost hidden within the pages. Whilst it is primarily a reworking in some respects it could also be a sequel.
It is told from two points of view. An unnamed TV journalist is re-investigating the murder of Michael Dalzell, the owner of an Estate in the Scottish borders, and his daughter Ishbel. The larger part of the novel is handed over to the journal of a woman named Jane, allegedly his illegitimate child.
The journalist looks into Dalzell’s past, he was a drinker and gambler (indeed he eventually lost his estates through gambling debts). On the night before his wedding, having lost hard in a London gaming room, he is confronted by a woman named Mary, a shop-girl whom he had a dalliance with and is now pregnant with his child. Some years later it appears that Mary turned up at his estates with Jane, her daughter, and a mysterious woman called Margaret or Meg. For those who knew him he seemed unusually tolerant as they squatted in one of his cottages, especially after it turned into a women’s commune and some of the alleged behaviour that went on, though other evidence suggests that he actually gave the cottage to Mary.
A friend of Jane, Stephen, contacts the journalist and provides Jane’s journal The prose style changes here and becomes very thick in the language, poetic and almost lost as Jane describes her life and her relationship with Meg, a woman she reveres and fears and holds some kind of power over her. Meg is sending Jane on ‘journeys’, preparing her, and has promised her a mysterious man (through her journal she is dismissive to the point of abhorrence of her boyfriend/partner Tony). The man is Gil-Martin and this is why I said sequel as Gil-Martin is a central character in the original novel, and the journalist mentions summoning him from the seventeenth century – which is when the original book was set.
The aim of these journeys is to prepare Jane to kill her bad sister. Through her journal we lose sense of who the bad sister is; is it a part of Jane, is it Miranda (Tony’s friend, or possibly ex or current lover), is it Ishbel. The inference is, from the journalist, that Jane killed her sister. Though the journal does not mention her father contemporaneously to the journal, the journalist is sure that she killed him under hypnosis (the police suspect is his daughter, though which one is never clarified). All that said, the journal might be the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic and a psychiatrist says as much.
The vampirism comes into the book later in the journal. To prepare Jane, Meg bites her and suckles her blood. This leads to changes in Jane, she feels ill during the day and when she walks into a kitchen filled with garlic bulbs she is overcome by the stench (garlic is mentioned later, in the scene the bulbs are described but never named). When she strikes at “the bad sister” it is in the form of Miranda, Jane’s teeth grow and she bites her. By this time she has no reflection, though perhaps Miranda is her reflection. She then leaves this world through one of the journeys, as Meg promised, though how she did this and got the journal to Stephen is one of the story’s idiosyncrasies. Such things are fine as the book deliberately leaves us on unsure ground.
Whilst Jane says she is leaving by ship, she also describes the appearance of Gil-Martin near her mother’s cottage. The coda to the story is the journalist hearing of strange goings on near Dalzell’s old estates, with workers unwilling to chop down a copse of trees due to supernatural disturbances on the work site. He investigates and finds a shallow grave, marked with a stick. The grave contains a well preserved corpse, the face smooth, the dyed hair grown out in the grave. The stick that marked the grave also pierced through the corpse's chest. It was positively identified as Jane.
Was she a vampire? She believed she was and that Meg was, according to her journal. She, at the very least, acted like one and may have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia or a.n.other mental health impairment, possibly including clinical vampirism. There is the suggestion that she was under hypnotic compulsion, but she might just have been a vampire. We are left to wonder.
The journal section is not the easiest of reads, as I say it is poetic and lush to the point of being thick. It doesn’t become too much of a chore and the style is absolutely necessary. Overall though I was convinced, the more I read, at just what a good film the straight retelling of this book would make. It would be an artistic, confusing traipse through the psyche of a woman possibly manipulated psychologically or supernaturally, possibly deluded and possibly a vampire. 6.5 out of 10.