Five Sisters by Kit Anderson

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DSC01562by Susan Abraham

Quick Thoughts:

Five Sisters: A Modern Novel of Kurdish Women is a fascinating account of Kurdish life that exhibits its harsh odds with Turkey. Kit Anderson has cut out a careful and riveting narrative of her beloved West Asian mountain people while lending her sympathetic ear to excessive hardships. This is an extraordinary ancient culture, not often told.

The story of Five Sisters revolves around an obscure old-fashioned village that features a large community of siblings and relatives. It is intense. Almost all of the main characters are finally separated either by life’s tragic circumstances or courageous choices, resulting in a tender and moving tale.  The past is resurrected only when Ruya, now a successful emigrant and businesswoman in America, looks back to her young years, once wrapped tightly in a war-torn Kurdish mountain village and still held close to the heart.

The narration evolves smoothly as each sister’s girlish temperament rises to the fore. A few are headstrong, the rest dreamy but far from a stereotyped version, Anderson has allowed for true-to-life episodes and near-gripping encounters made up of dark secrets, chaotic scenes and even a spot of jealousy resulting from sibling rivalry.

When one of the sisters Aliye resorts to all the painful workings of a sullen, daydreaming and overly-sensitive personality, her no-nonsense sister Sakina and their sister-in-law, Hatice carry on with their kitchen jobs and talk around Aliye, ignoring her tantrums.  When Ruya and another sister, Songul sneak off to the mountains to be trained as guerrillas, Ruya becomes terribly jealous on observing Songul’s closeness with a new-found friend.

Each personality in relation to her environment, lifestyle and choices is finely sketched. The plot that meanders along like a slow river both through festive celebration comprising engagements, weddings and gatherings and also tragedies encompassing brutal seasons of a harsh geographical climate, ill-fated gangster runs and guerrilla fighting with the Turks; may be seen as a meditative contemplation.

I find that through her many short, neat chapters, Anderson prefers to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’ and has skillfully developed this quality with which to command her writing strength. Village communal living composed with excruciating, meticulous detail, plods along. So much so that as a reader, I often felt caught up in a series of lingering dreamlike and extremely picturesque valley scenes. For the impatient reader, these sections may quickly drum up exhaustion. However, the plot does command a swifter pace about mid-way through. I watched rather wistfully from the outside instead of feeling too passionately for any particular character. But that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s simply the way the determined tone of the novel would choose to maneuvere my sentiments.

I might have been a passenger on a slow train ride through a time tunnel gaping at the many colourful episodes flashing past. Or I might have been seated inside a cinema hall, focussing on a film in close detail, adept at my role as silent witness. The closest visual image would lie in comparing this novel to a lengthy modern-day drama-documentary. As such, the novel portrays an excellent sense of place.

There are also vital details into the subject of honour-killing which sadly enough, lay as an ancient custom dutifully practiced by the men folk. For instance, when one of the sisters Ruya is raped one night in a barn, she daren’t scream. Her cries alone would have acted as consent for her father and uncles to kill her so as to rid their family pride of shame. Killings might be deliberately carried out or slyly woven into an unexpected hour as an ‘unfortunate accident’. Women often reluctantly supported such a decision. I like it that Anderson refuses to play on sensationalism but cuts to the bone with her ‘plain speaking’ descriptions in this area.

As a matter of personal taste, I prefer an investment into lengthy character study with my fiction rather than elaborate descriptions of scenery or a rich, rambling display of cultural habits, that tend to create a detachment for my emotions. I really enjoyed the narration overall. Kit Anderson’s Five Sisters would be brilliant as an informal, comprehensive study guide into the workings of Kurdish mountain-life, as the first point of reference before other challenging storylines may be attempted.

Further Reading:

Texts on Kurdish Studies

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