Following on from her previous novel The Midwife’s Daughter, Patricia Ferguson returns to the sleepy Cornish town of Silkhampton to tell the story of both new and also some familiar characters. Set in the early 1930s, the book revolves around three women, all widely different but drawn together by circumstance into a situation which will test them both as individuals and in their relationships with each other.
The unassuming ‘30s cover art and the back cover synopsis hardly prepare the reader for the extremely graphic description of a vaginal examination which takes place in the opening pages of the book (the clinical detail shows the nursing background of the author). Having set the bar in this opening scene as a more hard-core version of Call the Midwife as it were, Ferguson does not take her foot off the accelerator all the way through the novel, throwing a bit of everything into the mix: war dead, race issues, a spooky mansion, a potential murder and plenty of hints at hidden pasts. The drama is backed up with a cast of fascinating minor characters, some of whom make an reappearance from her previous work, others who provide a titillating glimpse into what could be interesting future projects.
The three central characters avoid cliché by being delightfully nuanced. None are purely admirable, but each possesses her own form of strength in the face of loss and adversity. The fact that the novel focuses almost entirely on women, with men playing only bit parts, is delightfully refreshing. Men in this book are either absent, ineffectual or dangerous to the best interests of women. There is no hint at romance in this story, although each of the women is marked in different ways by relationships with men from their pasts. This struggle between what women need and what male society demands of them is a major theme throughout the novel and the struggles of the principal characters to resolve these issues are best expressed by one of their number, Lettie;
This is in the other war, see? The endless one. The war that starts all wars: the war between men and women.
It is the relationships between women which is the major theme of this novel, not between those of the opposite sexes. Whether between sisters, friends, mothers or care givers, the concept of female solidarity is both inspiring and moving. The use of the Marie Stopes’ family planning clinics as a backdrop also enables the author to provide commentary on reproductive rights and fertility issues; this emphasised by the rigmarole one character must go through in order to keep her illegitimate child without losing her good name. Through these plot lines Ferguson engages with interesting ideas about female emancipation and the taking of one’s destiny into one’s own hands. As one of the characters says, what women want – really want – is sovereignty.
Ferguson does not shy away from fairly graphic descriptions of dodgy abortion practices or from the more extreme results of obstetric disaster and difficulty. Highly readable and with some genuine moments of what can only be termed feminist philosophy, this book is a truly worthwhile read – not just because it is a great story, but because it is genuinely soothing and nourishing to the soul to see someone engaging with women’s issues and feminist ideals through fiction in such an accessible and understated way. Ferguson’s invocation of the concepts of sisterhood, female self- reliance and self-rule are all refreshing in an age where volumes like Fifty Shades of Grey top best-sellers lists. There was stiff competition in this year’s Bailey Prize, as always, and it is a shame that Aren’t We Sisters did not make it onto the short list, but Ferguson is certainly an author to watch and future offerings will surely be eagerly anticipated by many readers.