REVIEW by Laura Stowe

18/06/2012

The Sister of the Artist

by Dai Vaughan

As a sister to two younger brothers, I was naturally intrigued by the notion of Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the Artist; a fictional exploration of the mysteries of sibling love. Like all big sisters, I have experienced my fair share of the rivalry, shared secrets and the pains and joys of a lifetime spent together. I am also aware that I am incredibly lucky to enjoy a happy and harmonious relationship with my brothers; a luxury I know is not always afforded to other siblings elsewhere.

Sister of the Artist opens with two short stories; Melissa and Catilena; two characters from Vaughan’s previous novel, The Cloud Chamber. The stories are linked by the two female characters (sisters) whose lives have taken different forks in the road. Melissa is a writer of dark fairytales and her work intersperses both stories; this format (short stories within a longer narrative) are a prelude to the format of the novella-length story that follows.

And it is not just the structure of the short stories that feeds into the longer fiction either: themes, such as the repression of women by men, are present in both parts of the book.

In the opening pages of the main story we are introduced to siblings Viktor and Veronika (based on the example of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny): they are incredibly close and share a passion for painting. In their youth they encourage and help one another; they day-dream about future exhibitions and fantasise about the possibilities that lie before them. It is Viktor who experiences success first, whilst Veronika is hampered by her father as she comes of age; he tells her that ‘the way of art is a man’s way’ and that her talents ‘can not provide your centre of fulfilment.’ Encouraged to seek out a more ‘appropriate’ lifestyle to the early nineteenth century, she marries and has a child.

Sadly, the suppression of Veronika’s artistic talents does not end with her father. Although encouraged by her husband, it is her brother she seeks approval from after their father’s death. Despite the fact that his own career is flourishing, it is an approval he knowingly withholds, and the consequences of this are tragic on multiple levels.

The short stories that are interwoven into the beautifully crafted main story offer readers the time to pause and reflect on the issues being dealt with in the book. Each short story echoes the complexities of Viktor and Veronika’s relationship and, indeed, they also echo the timeless battles of siblings today.

A few days ago I was midway through Sister of the Artist when the sad news broke of the author’s death. Vaughan was also an editor and producer of films: you can read one film-maker’s tribute here as well as a revered poet. The latter is certainly evident in his rich use of language in this book and there are some wonderfully described passages of both people and places:

…the road with crumbling sarcophagi, lizard motionless as the blind eyes of the funerary busts; distance stopped by exclamatory cypresses from which waterfalls chortle all the way back; and, in the town, where weeds hang lush from the capitals of commemorative columns and rapscallions loiter in doorways or lounge under tattered awnings or hone their swords on the rims of fountains as they swap boasts….


In this work and his others, the writer leaves an important literary legacy which will undoubtedly be read, analysed and enjoyed by many generations to come.





       


previous review: Africa Junction
next review: The Happy-go-lucky Morgans



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