Sisterwives by Rachel Connor
9th Feb 2012
Set in the isolated, seemingly idyllic rural community of Marah, the story centres on the triangle of Tobias and his two wives – the younger Amarantha (Ammie) and the older Rebecca. These marriages, or ‘sealings’, are part of the community’s traditions, with the women duty-bound to fulfil their roles as wives serving husband and community, and Tobias expected to soon become an elder with a more active role in the Meeting House. Difficulties arise when Tobias and Ammie’s partnership develops and it is clear they desire each other – as lovers, not just as individuals playing their parts for the greater good. Rebecca is dutiful and composed, and her internal struggle with seeing her husband welcoming the youthful and adventurous girl into their home is beautifully captured in Connor’s rich prose.
The story moves seamlessly from present to past and back again, weaving a web of secrets that is intriguing and somewhat hypnotic, not least because Connor takes her time – her writing doesn’t race along, it doesn’t rush you, instead allowing you to become absorbed in the detail. I read the book in one sitting and was engrossed, each character revealing a fraction of the story that is yet to happen, the history of the community and the pasts they no longer speak about. When Ammie runs away to the ‘seedy’ city of Lot, Connor’s attention to detail creates a culture shock for the reader as well as the characters. Suddenly confronted with the brash, chaotic and unrestrained noise and commotion of city living, the reader is all the more aware of the isolation of Marah. The two worlds seem centuries apart, emphasising the differences in values, beliefs systems and ways of life. There is a delicate balance within the book, exploring the choices people make rather than condemning them. There have been numerous books about polygamous, fundamentalist sects from both female and male perspectives, exposing control mechanisms and widespread abuse, but within the framework of a novel, Connor treads more gently, unpicking the threads that bind these people and seeing how her characters respond. The community of Marah is protected from the temptations of the city, and loyalty and kinship provides a support network that is, on the surface, more warm and welcoming than the solipsism of modern life, but this is an ideal that cannot be sustained.
“It’s an exploration of desire, and questions whether it’s possible for one individual to fulfil all our needs – sexual, spiritual, emotional – all of the time. Sisterwives also looks at the pros and cons – especially for the female characters – of living in a non-nuclear unit. While Sisterwives occupies a fictional space (the community is an imaginary one), it borrows aspects from the Pennsylvania Amish, from fundamentalist Mormons and from Quakers, as well as drawing on my own experience as a visitor for many years to an intentional community and housing co-op in rural Scotland.”
The names used in Sisterwives also bring with them a lot of biblical connotations (something I’d like to ask about if Connor does another Q&A session). The city is called Lot, a name biblically linked to the destruction of Sodom, incest and Lot’s wife, a woman punished for disobeying the instructions of angels; Rebecca, the name of a biblical matriarch, can mean ‘loyal’ and ‘bound’; and Marah, the site of secrets and repressed tensions as the novel develops, is Hebrew for ‘bitter. But this book is about much more than religion, it is about community, individuals, questioning structures and expectations that are taken for granted. It is also, at its heart, about the women of the story; the later exchanges and encounters between Ammie and Rebecca are the most tender and poignant, capturing everything that makes these women as close to each other as they are different.
Tensions in Marah reach breaking point towards the end of the novel, and I was pleased that the author didn’t end with an overly dramatic climax. Instead she allows a pause for reflection by the characters and the reader, which makes for a more satisfying conclusion that is in keeping with the rest of the book.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in different belief systems and ways of life; anyone who enjoys taking their time to savour detail and complex characters.