Do you know that feeling when a book feels like it’s been written exclusively for you? When it touches so many nerves you think someone has stolen your non-existent diary and fictionalised it?* And then as the book progresses, you realise that perhaps other people have just had similar experiences to you, and this is one of those realities, but with an alternate ending that you really hope you can avoid?
Keto von Waberer and I have few things in common, but those things we do share are really quite terrifying. I recently finished reading her clearly autobiographical book, Schwester. (I'm afraid there's nothing in English I can find on either the author or the book.) For those with absolutely no German who are thus unable to guess from the title, it’s the story of her difficult relationship with her sister. One blonde and asthmatic, the other a dark-haired survivor, the two girls are the best of friends and hate each other’s guts. They develop different strategies for claiming their unfair share of their parents’ love – sickness and coping. And those strategies become personality traits in the adult women, influencing the way their lives progress.
The book, published back in 2002, opens with a bang: “At the supermarket, by a shelf of washing powder, I start to cry and can’t stop.” The narrator is crying for her sister, who died two years ago. So we know how things will end, and it’s the power of this story’s searing honesty that keeps the momentum going up to the last chapter. Von Waberer writes as if her mental stability depended on it, in sober prose - autobiography as therapy.
There isn’t a plot as such, other than the two women’s lives as children, as adults, their relationships with their parents, partners, themselves, and each other. The only structure as the narration swings back and forth in time is the chronology of the narrator’s own life, marked by events such as going away to school, falling pregnant, starting a writing career, leaving her husband, the loss of her parents, and overcoming writer’s block. I didn’t feel the lack, partly because the book is relatively short at 168 pages.
There are things here we might not want to know in such detail – about ourselves or anyone else. How the narrator’s father wants to sleep with her, how she hates her sister’s unappealing body and hates herself for feeling that way. All the resentment, the worry as her sister sinks into illness and depression, the rare shared happy memories spoilt by cutting remarks or guilty conscience. And all told so openly that it feels like you’re the therapist listening to one woman’s painful story, with the benefit of hindsight – many chapters close with a phrase to the effect that “I know that now; I didn’t then.”
Yet although it’s so plainly and painfully autobiographical, the book doesn’t seem self-indulgent; the agony of a married mother falling in love with someone else, for example, is perfectly contained in a half-page chapter. I can’t say reading it was a pleasure, but it was certainly an experience that taught me a few things about myself as a sister, and I don’t regret it or feel I wasted my time on it. Keto von Waberer is probably a “woman’s writer”, and an excellent one at that. If you like books about testosterone-drenched action, it may not be your cup of tea. But I can certainly recommend this book to any women with sisters of their own. Or in fact to only daughters who feel hard done-by; after this, you won’t.
* Actually, a guy I used to know swore blind he’d lost his diary while staying in Vienna, and got really angry when he saw Before Sunrise.