Books: In brief

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The Independent Culture
2 Little Sister by Carol Birch, Virago, pounds 15.99. Carol Birch is a novelist whose low-key portraits of unremarkable lives almost disguise their own skill. There is no obvious look-at-me quality about her prose, yet her new book, a tale of two sisters, has an emotional depth which is quite exceptional.

Birch's narrator Cathy works as a waitress and part-time piano teacher in a small northern town. At 37, she has all but given up on a life which is coloured only by the odd flash of existential terror. Cathy's past contains enough trauma to explain her present numbness. The death of her husband and loss of her unborn child in an accident some years before have wreaked serious damage, leaving her unable to continue her career as an illustrator. More insidious, however, is her unresolved relationship with Veronica Karen, the younger sister with the ghastly name whom she has not seen for a decade.

When Cathy receives an unexpected call from Stephen, an early boyfriend of Veronica Karen's, she is shocked into revisiting the past by the news that her irresponsible, demanding, beautiful sister is dangerously ill with Aids. Stephen's anxiety is heightened by the fact that Veronica Karen has disappeared. He asks Cathy to help him find her, and together they set off on a journey with leads them, after various abortive visits to old friends, to the hospital where Veronica Karen lies dying. For Cathy, this is a psychological journey as much s a geographical one. Facing up to her sister's mortality forces her to confront her own murderous feelings towards Veronica Karen, as well as the love which, despite themselves, binds the two sisters together.

Sibling rivalry may have been one of the most basic human instincts since the days of Cain and Abel, but few writers are able to acknowledge its complexities as fully as Birch does. Somehow, she manages to make us empathise with Cathy's perception of Veronica Karen while simultaneously enabling us to stand back and take a more objective view. We share the rage and jealousy which Cathy, the dutiful daughter, feels towards her destructive and infuriatingly sexy sister. But we can also see that Veronica Karen has all her life felt crushed by her well- behaved elder sibling.

Though she refuses to offer sentimental solutions, Birch leaves us with the sense that Cathy will survive and grow, despite the stark reality of her sister's death.