Manticory Swiney and her six sisters are born into poverty in rural 19th century Ireland and brought up by their mother, a laundress. They have never known their father (he visits once a year in the middle of the night) but from him they have inherited some very special gifts: their wonderful names and the abundance of long, thick hair which proves to be their route to fame and fortune. Bullied by the eldest sister, Darcy, into performing on the stage, the girls entertain their audiences by singing, dancing and, as a finale, unleashing their luxuriant cascades of ankle-length hair.
Approached by Augustus Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker, both of whom can see the money-making potential of seven long-haired sisters, the ‘Swiney Godivas’ leave their impoverished Harristown lives behind to find success in first Dublin then Venice. But for black-haired, sharp-tongued Darcy, the rival twins Berenice and Enda, quiet Pertilly, gentle, blonde Oona, wild Idolatry and our narrator, red-haired Manticory, fame doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.
I loved this book, the first I’ve read by Michelle Lovric, and I would agree that it really is a ‘splendid history’. It’s not quite a true one – Manticory and her sisters are fictional – but it was inspired by the story of the real-life Sutherland Sisters, an American family who really did become celebrities due to their long hair. If you have trouble imagining what seven sisters all with floor-length hair would look like, lots of pictures of the Seven Sutherland Sisters can be found online.
With so many Swineys to get to know, I was pleased to find that each sister is given a strong and distinctive personality of her own. I liked some of the girls and disliked others, but they were all great to read about, particularly the fierce, devilish Darcy who takes control of every scene in which she appears. One of my favourite characters, though, was not a Swiney sister at all, but their childhood enemy, Eileen O’Reilly (or the Eileen O’Reilly as she is always described) who enjoys exchanging very imaginative insults with Darcy – and who claims to hate the Swineys yet can’t seem to stay away from them.
Manticory herself has a wonderful narrative voice: strong, poetic and unmistakably ‘Irish’. She manages to bring a lot of humour into her ‘true and splendid history’ but it’s really a very dark story. There’s a vulnerability about the sisters, even Darcy, in that they are manipulated and taken advantage of by ruthless businessmen and men who are…well, attracted to girls with long hair. The Swineys are betrayed and exploited by the very people they have placed their trust in and what makes this even more tragic is that the reader can see this from the beginning while the sisters can’t.
Finally, I want to mention the excellent descriptive writing in this book. Every time Manticory thinks of her childhood in Harristown, County Kildare, she remembers the ‘turf stoves, thin geese and slow crows’ until Harristown becomes almost a character in itself. Later in the book, the descriptions of Venice are particularly beautiful…
The palazzi and churches let their fretted stones hang down into our faces like beautiful, insitent ghosts. Beckoning lanterns hung at arched water-gates. Inside their houses, equisitely dressed Venetians displayed themselves in glowing tableaux so that each palace seemed to host a puppet theatre performing just for us. The city was mystical and barbaric all at once, a floating fortress so delicate that the fairies would hesitate to place the weight of their wings on it.
I also loved the images of the girls hanging their hair from the windows of the bell tower of San Vidal like seven Rapunzels and each of them standing in the bow of a gondola with her hair trailing into the boat behind. I could tell this book was written by someone who knows and loves Venice!
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is one of my favourite books of the year so far and I’m now looking forward to investigating Michelle Lovric’s previous novels.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.