Vanessa and Virginia
by Susan Sellers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Vanessa and Virginia / 978-0-151-01474-3
Not knowing anything at all about the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, I approached this novel with some minor trepidation, concerned that I would not be able to follow the narrative in any meaningful fashion. I could not have been more wrong, for this deeply lyrical novel is both accessible and gripping, haunting the reader through to the final pages.
Written in an intensely beautiful, highly personal letter, Vanessa writes at the end of her life to her younger sister, Virginia. Virginia the spoiled, Virginia the aloof, Virginia the adored, Virginia the suicidal and depressed. Vanessa transports us to the days of their childhood, recalling little scenes, tiny tableaus of their lives, before skipping lightly, painfully ahead to the next shared memory. She speaks, haltingly, of her lost childhood. How she was forced to fill in as 'mother' after their own mother died; how their father hounded her with abuse and neediness that drained her, even as Virginia drained her with her own needs and wants and desires. Even here, we see the shadow of deep depression that looms over this talented family, and especially these two vibrant sisters.
As Vanessa continues her style, always in a deeply lyrical and highly accessible tone, we travel through the lives of these authors. We see the two sisters, loving each other deeply and yet keeping each other distant from the fear that can only be felt towards those who know our inner faults deeply and intimately. As Vanessa is unappreciated (her own paintings selling for a fraction of Virginia's highly praised writings) and unloved (first by her husband, who grows distant with the birth of their first child; then by her lover who steadfastly prefers men to his 'dear Nessa'), we feel her innermost pain as she struggles to be the perpetual mother to the needy men and unthinking children who surround her, with no one to ever mother her in return. Only Virginia can come close to fulfilling that need, and then only because she understands her sister more intimately than the men around her; she understand, at least, that Vanessa *has* needs, even if she is powerless to fulfill them.
This poignant novel is written with such fluidity that it is a pure joy to read, and yet the pages are so packed with meaning and deep sadness, that each page feels like a lifetime of effort. The reader feels at once intensely connected to Vanessa and understands her love for her sister, recognizes that this selfless sisterly love is one of mutual need for a soul mate, for someone who can understand, however imperfectly, the thoughts and needs harbored within. In this regard, "Vanessa and Virginia" reminded me, hauntingly, of Margaret Atwood's superb "The Blind Assassin", where another pair of sisters suffers the same painful attachment, an attachment born at least as much from shared pains and horrors of childhood as it is of shared flesh and blood.
A word about the sexuality in this novel. Although the back cover references the rumors of potential incest between the sisters, and although the book lightly hints that this is a possibility, the references are so swift and veiled that I am not certain I would have recognized them, had I not been 'primed' by the back cover to look for them. There are casual mentions throughout of the unorthodox (at the time, at least) sexual relationships between the members of the artistic set who follow Vanessa and Virginia, but there is very little overt sensuality in this book - rather, I would describe this instead as a sort of memoir, as the fictional Vanessa pours out her heart onto the page, skimming lightly over the details of her loves and lovers, and instead focusing on the task of inscribing, to her sister, the details of her life, from her own perspective.
In the end, despite my utter lack of knowledge of either the real Vanessa Bell or the real Virginia Woolf, I still found this novel to be a solemn joy - sobering and touching - and I recommend it strongly. I have no doubt that a Woolf or Bell enthusiast would derive even more pleasure from this novel, but I can say for certain that this novel is equally accessible to neophytes.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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