The unnamed narrator of Lily Tuck’s dark, taut novel “Sisters” is well educated and well married, but fit to burst with fury. She is the second wife of a New York investment banker, but the first wife feels inescapable, like a hated song that won’t stop playing in your head. “She,” she calls her — in italics, so that even mundane facts sound seething. “She spent two years in Philadelphia.” “She wore a long paisley skirt.”
Why so mad? Wife No. 1 hasn’t done anything explicit to trigger such fuming. But much like the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” which “Sisters” references, Wife Number Two despairs of her ability to escape the shadow of her predecessor. “Sisters” is written in very short chapters, many of them one or two sentences, which evokes a scattered, unsettled brain. You can’t begrudge her some anger: “Once while we were making love, my husband called out her name instead of mine,” she writes. But Tuck is interested less in well-worn themes of love and fidelity than our capacity for self-deception.
The style of “Sisters” — clipped, interior, written with a deliberately flat affect — is in good company of late. Novels like Zinzi Clemmons’ “What We Lose,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” and Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” all consider relationships from a fragmentary, almost cubist perspective. For all of them, the idea of a straightforward romantic narrative is overly, well, romantic. What distinguishes Tuck from her peers is a command born of experience — she’s been writing in this mode since the early ’90s, earning a National Book Award for it (somewhat controversially) in 2004. “Sisters” looks like a busted narrative, but Tuck expertly deploys revelations like land mines.
In time, it’s clear that the narrator is expert at distracting herself from actions that have her racked with a guilt she’s not ready to acknowledge. She creates smoke screens: references to Václav Havel’s letters, and quotes from erudite novelists from Philip Roth to Mario Vargas Llosa. But she keeps colliding into the matters of loss, fear and betrayal she’s trying to wriggle free from. We know very little about the man she married, and only a little more about her stepchildren, which underscores Tuck’s point: A marriage has as much to do with what we think of ourselves as what we think of the person we married.
“Sisters” takes its title from the folkloric connection of wives as sisterly, and the antiquated ritual of a widower marrying his dead wife’s sister. Tuck’s narrator can’t bear to be seen as a mere function of another woman. But the book’s power is in how desperate she is to redefine herself. “She is blond, fair-skinned, big-boned, and taller than I,” she writes, insistent and needy. “I am dark and petite.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By: Lily Tuck.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 156 pages, $20.