The narrative of Sister Moon stems from the depths of Cat’s mind as she tussles with her childhood experiences and the effect they have had on her life. Guilt and regret torment her as she struggles to come to terms with her sister, Devin’s death, and the way Devin’s life was ruined. It is a remarkable book as it shows great insight and perception that is couched in language that, although understated, expresses the despair that clouded the two sisters.
The novel is set in Cape Town, though the city’s name is not mentioned. A comment about “the Flats” and the nature of the scenery are the only clues to its identity. I wonder if a reader who had never been to Cape Town would recognise it. Cat, with her husband, Auster, and her daughter, Hayley, is driving her father (who she calls Samuel not Dad), to a retirement home. The tension in the car is palpable as emotions tumble through her mind. She feels as if she is driving him out of her home and, although he agreed, he now resists. The nursing home is in the same area in which Cat spent the happiest moments of her childhood.
Cat, as a child, was very close to her father. They had a special bond that she relished especially as, in comparison, Devin’s relationship with him was fraught with misunderstanding. Cat also adored her older sister but could not help feeling gleeful whenever Samuel showed his preference for Cat, or Sea Monkey, as he called her. Devin was “milk and she was honey, but her triumph was that she was the sun around which Samuel orbited, while her sister remained the cool and elusive moon”. Although Samuel was a gambler and a boozer, this means nothing to Cat; he can do no wrong in her eyes and even when he does, she forgives him easily. Looking back on her childhood now through adult eyes she sees more. The sad thing is that she cannot forgive herself and realise that she was just a child. She sees herself as complicit in Samuel’s bad behaviour.
In looking back now on her early years, she says, “If there’s such a thing as happiness, then I know when it ended.” The family is evicted from their home and are forced to live with Samuel’s brother, Marshall. He appears to have an unhealthy interest in Devin, who is delicately beautiful but still a child, only twelve. Cat has the fleeting impression that something is not right but she is too young. Doors closing at strange times, rumpled clothes, and a button fastened incorrectly; all the while Devin appears haunted and becomes frail. Her parents cannot and will not see what is right in front of their eyes because they are beholden to Marshall, feel as if they are there under sufferance and have to toe some invisible line. The writer’s skill in conveying the sense of menace is excellent.
Cat and Devin’s mother is not named either. She is a constant presence but lives her life in the wings. She finally sets some boundaries for her errant husband but hers is a shadow life. She takes care of the family but as an adult Cat realises that “as long as she lived, she never thought to ask if there was anything more that she wanted.” Samuel is a larger than life character who overshadows his wife and to Cat, he was “the peg on which she would always hang her past”. Phrases such as this set the novel apart; the descriptive language takes the reader into the deep reflection on her feelings as a part of this disjointed family. She is torn between love for her sister and loyalty towards her father then, later in her twenties, she is frustrated when trying to help her sister out of the abyss. It is only in looking back at her twenties that she realises that she “didn’t yet know that everything she could have changed or made a difference to was already behind her“.
In the present time, Cat is a filmmaker who creates documentaries, a profession that seems to stem from the way her “fractured childhood had created her waking dreams”. Her relationship with her lovely husband and her sometimes difficult daughter are coloured by her childhood and having to cope with Samuel’s last days brings it all back to life.
The bare facts of a story such as this may not be unique but the writing is so beautiful, the insight into people is so astute and the way the story is constructed so effective that one closes the last page of this book with a sense of full understanding of the perspective of each character. There is a sense of sorrow too at the tragedy of life yet a feeling of being moved rather than depressed by this.