Blood lines;Books for Christmas;Reviews

17th December 1999 at 00:00
SISTERS: an anthology. Edited by Penelope Farmer. Penguin Press pound;20

The elegant 19th-century portrait of the Bonaparte sisters makes a beautiful but somewhat misleading cover for this excellent book. Open it and you will find not stateliness and serenity, but every sort of emotion, in passages taken from essays and novels, poems, newspapers, scientific articles and personal letters.

Good anthologies - and this is an excellent one - accomplish two things. First, they spread before you the work of many writers. Not all of them will be to your taste, but judicious choices can lead you to broaden your reading and try new authors and new books. The pieces you recognise are like old friends that you're glad to see at a party. You remember all over again how much you like them, and chide yourself with having neglected them for so long. I was thrilled to see a passage from Junichiro Tanizaki's wonderful novel, The Makioka Sisters, and equally delighted that Farmer shares my admiration for Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping.

The second thing anthologies ought to do is invite you into the life and mind of the anthologist. Farmer gives us what is almost a parallel text about herself and her siblings, and I found these pieces enthralling and at times very moving.

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