Book review: The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

There is a delicious, passionate, unpredictable contrariness at the heart of us all.

We may only be dimly aware of it or fully aware of it in all its wildly contradictory glory depending our perceptive abilities and inclination, but our innate humanity, our capacity for good and evil, light and dark, given power and direction by the giddy luxury of choice, is there regardless, something which defines, shapes and drives us right throughout our lives.

It is also what propels The Sisters Grimm, a fantastical book in the truest sense of the word and yet one which, for all its otherworldliness and sense of remove from the everyday world, feels earthy, grounded and as true to the grim and enchanting realities of life as any book you will ever read.

Infinitely imaginative with a richness of purpose so vitally alive and real that you feel as swept in its world as its four protagonists eventually do, The Sisters Grimm centres on the lives of four young almost-eighteen women in and around Cambridge, England who are thirty-three days away from the biggest and momentous turning point in their lives.

Only they don’t do know that yet.

Born out of mysterious, supernatural circumstances, the exact nature of which is best left for you to discover along with Goldie, Liyana, Bea and Scarlett, these young women look as normal as you and me, and in terms of their self-awareness of who are they are, feel like it too.

“Yet, despite her rational mother, Scarlet was a child who prayed for tornadoes to take her to Oz, who had upturned many a wardrobe seeking Narnia and spoiled several lawns digging holes to Wonderland. Ruby believed in none of these things and didn’t like her daughter believing in them either. So, Scarlet had learned to keep quiet about her adventures and, indeed, about everything else.” (P. 45)

Memories dance on the edge of their consciousness, snippets of recollection from a time when as children they went to a land called Everwhere where things impossible in our world were remarkably, life-changingly possible, but like smoke disappearing into the ether from a fire, they feel as if they never happened even though each of them, to differing degrees, begin to feel like they might just be from their actual past.

Tracking down how real or otherwise these memories are is not their consuming priority, anyway.

Each of them are grappling with their own challenges, lifelong and immediate, which take all their energy and mindfulness to process, leaving precious little for examination of the extraordinarily vivid dreams that fill their dreaming hours.

They know something is amiss, again to different degrees, but when you are dealing with your grandmother’s illness or an abusive past and precarious present or forging a financially stable future, there’s scant time to drill down and find out if there is anything to these dreams, whispers and vague senses of something faintly ill-at-ease and odd.

That is something that older, wiser and more stable people have time for but four women on the cusp of adulthood, caught between hopes and dreams of a vibrant future and the undeniable realities of lives that while not terrible, leave a great deal still to be desired.

(image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The endlessly rewarding joy of The Sisters Grimm is that it marries the everyday and the otherworldly in ways that feel not only entirely possible but emotionally evocative into the bargain.

This marriage of the two seemingly impossible to reconcile realities works because van Praag never once forsake the innate humanity of each and every one of her protagonists.

No matter what they encounter or who they meet or what they discover about themselves, they remain first and foremost grounded human beings who are trying to make their way in this unforgiving, unrelenting world of ours.

Too many urban fantasy novels transform their characters from naive bill payers commuting to thankless jobs to saviours of the world, the universe and everything in-between in the blink of an eye and with no believable or discernible transition but The Sisters Grimm keeps the four young women rooted in the commonplace even as they trip ever further towards a fantastical future in which they will have to fight for their lives and those of the people nearest and dearest to them.

That’s a big ask – when you begin throwing every more supernatural elements into the mix, it is tempting to put the pedal to the metal and let the narrative give itself over entirely to events beyond our ordinary perception and understanding.

“If he’s going to convince Goldie, Leo needs to do something dramatic. Careful and considered aren’t working. And, with only five days to go, he can’t afford to waste any more time. He knows the one thing he could say that will make her believe. But, if he does that, he’ll lose her. Which means he must choose between keeping her love or saving her life.” (P. 367)

But there is something deeply rewarding about keeping the characters you have to know through slow and steady build-up, and here van Praag masterfully holds the course to an arrestingly immersive degree, pretty much as they are in terms of personality and outlook even as they come to the realisation that the world is a bigger place than the gabled surrounds of the hallowed halls of Cambridge.

The characters grow of course, the enthralling storyline of The Sisters Grimm all but demanding it, but even in the intensity of the final decisive act, they remain true to who they are, reacting in ways that reflect change but not to the point where it erases who and what they are.

Written with prose that is both luminous and accessible, soaring yet grounded and measured yet emotionally intense, The Sisters Grimm is a gem of a book that remembers that at the heart of the extraordinary often lie very ordinary people simply trying to make sense of life.

Granted Goldie, Liyana, Bea and Scarlett are a lot less ordinary than the rest of us but that comes later after a lifetime of growing up more or less like the rest of us – but not, as the magically dreamy chapters dealing with their childhood detail, in every way – meaning they are still people who, though borne of “bright-white wishing and black-edged-desire, feel, love, fret and hope exactly as we do.

They have, it turns out, far more potent tools in their arsenal to deal with life’s twists and turns than we do, but those abilities don’t eclipse the fact that they are people and that life demands of them exactly what it demands of us.

The Sisters Grimm is vividly, hauntingly gorgeous, a tale of destiny fulfilled and humanity confirmed that dances assuredly between the grindingly and unavoidably banal and the startlingly supernatural and otherworldly, delivering up a captivating and wonderfully written story that takes us on wild and vivacious flights of the imagination while remaining grounded, real and true to the fact that life is tough and demands its pound of flesh, no matter who you are or where, you might end up.

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