Book Review: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.

Historical fiction tends to be hit or miss for me. I love history and I have lists of favourite historical fiction novels (and not-so-fictional ones too). Still, I often DNF historical fiction simply because it is on a completely different wavelength. It’s just such a niche genre that they often miss me completely.

Anyway, Vanessa and her Sister: A Novel was not such a case. The novel is written in diary format, from Vanessa Stephens’ (later Bell’s) pen, with some letters of correspondence interspersed. The writing style is fluid and unpretentious and gentle and BEAUTIFUL.

“When there was nothing to say, we made room for silence, like a thick blue wave rolling through the house. And then there were the arguments. Chewy, swift, loud arguments. I sat transfixed as the words sprinted through the room.”

I was fascinated by the presentation of the various characters because Parmar provokes and exploits their humanity. They would all go on to be game-changers in the literature and arts, but here we see them as pretty ordinary YOUNG people who are a little rebellious and have no idea how famous their pursuits will make them one day.

I admit I do not know much of the setting and era depicted here, but it seemed concordant with what I do know. Parmar paints with her words, and the novel becomes a beautiful English painting with bold strokes.

Vanessa’s point of view was perfect. I’ve never been a particular fan of Virginia Woolf, for no reason other than lack of exposure, but I love when a novel takes the point of view of a lesser-known individual. The tone and angle become completely different and in this case, wonderful.

Parmar’s characterization is done very well. I thought the characters were all very well rounded, and I had a distinct dislike for Virginia from the beginning! It contributes to the fact that this is, at its centre, a novel of sisterhood. Virginia is wholly unlikable to me, but Vanessa continues to love and adore her, because that is what sisters do. The way she observes Virginia and pays close attention to her well-being is something I can understand. There is no way to describe sisterly love if you have not experienced it. No matter what a sister does, you will always love her.

“Writing is Virginia’s engine. She thrums with purpose when she writes. Her scattershot joy and frantic distraction refocus, and she funnels into her purest form. Her centre holds until the piece is over, and she comes apart again.”

Other themes I enjoyed were that of the arts and that of mental health. Parmar expertly illustrates the challenges of creating and sharing one’s art, and she made me want to write more! Mental health issues were addressed tenderly and accurately, as was the challenge of supporting a family member with mental illness.

In all, this was a surprising and incredibly written novel that was clearly also very well researched. It is gritty and burrowed into my heart. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

quote vanessa and her sister

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