Publisher: 4th Estate
Publication Date: 7th February 2019
I am writing this review after just finishing the book about 20 minutes ago. I’m not a huge crier but I have just sobbed my heart out and I feel totally and utterly bereft, drained and wrung out.
I saw this book talked about on Jen Campbell’s YouTube channel a few weeks ago and thought it sounded interesting. I contacted the lovely Matt Clacher at 4th Estate Books and cheekily asked if I could have a copy to review. Matt being Matt said of course! And a couple of days later it was in my possession.
I picked it up to read on a lazy Saturday afternoon and had read it by Sunday. I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from it and both of the other books I’m currently reading have had to take a back seat.
When I Had A Little Sister tells of the harrowing and completely devastating death of Catherine Simpson’s little sister Tricia. Tricia suffered from depression and ultimately bipolar and psychosis from her early teens and first started to change when she was just 8 years old. Tricia took her own life on the 7th December 2013 at the age of 46 having suffered terribly for most of her life.
Catherine starts the book from the point of her getting that horrific telephone call from her older sister Elizabeth, telling her that something had happened to Trisha. We then follow the devastating aftermath of the hours, days and weeks following the grim discovery.
Catherine then takes us back in time to the sisters early childhood and their family life living on a farm called New House Farm in rural Lancashire. A typical farming family who’s livelihood depended on their dairy herd, early mornings and hard physical work. Theirs was a family who didn’t really sit down and converse, they didn’t ‘chat’ or talk about feelings, and their only conversation at the tea table was regarding the weather and the various goings on with the farm animals. As children the girls were told not to interrupt and basically be seen and not heard.
The 3 girls were outdoorsy, physical with little regard for health and safety, always out playing in the lanes, getting dirty and witnessing the death of the animals regularly. Catherine also talks about the various demises of her extended relatives and talks candidly about their grandfather being in their front room in his open coffin and the children playing a raucous game up and down the corridor whereby if they touched the handle of the door grandad was behind, they became ‘haunted’.
Catherine pieces together little signs of the changes in Tricia’s behaviour from as early as the age of 8. When Tricia sadly changed from a bubbly, sweet natured, people pleasing little girl to a sullen, withdrawn child who hid behind her fringe and very rarely took part in games anymore.
After Tricia’s death Catherine and Elizabeth wrack their brains to try and determine what prompted this distinct change in Tricia. Abuse is mulled over and quickly dismissed and they cannot fathom what it could have been related to.
As Catherine and Elizabeth grow up and move out of the farmhouse Tricia is the one left behind. She is lonely and tied to the farmhouse and her parents until sadly their mother dies of cancer.
Tricia does go on to study and have some happy moments in her life but ultimately she cannot settle or find peace and takes the painful decision to end her own life.
This book drew me in in so many different ways. The sheer horror and devastation of the event itself being the first pull. However Catherine weaves a very beautiful nostalgic story which is often lightly humorous. The fact that they are a northern working class family resonated with me and a lot of their childhood phrases and games really brought back memories of my own working class northern childhood.
I was also drawn to the various stories of other family members. A great great aunt who bought a one way ticket to Australia for her husband and told him good riddance, who eventually perished when she put a heater on her bed to warm her up and her bedclothes caught fire. There are countless stories of eccentric, larger than life ancestors, their life inside and outside of the farm and their links to Catherine and her family.
Catherine’s mother and father are both very interesting people. Her mother is slightly detached, closed off and not very emotional. She cares for the needs of the girls, cooking them wholesome delicious meals but then retreating to her bedroom for hours on end behind a locked door. Their father, the one who discovered Tricia’s body is equally as unemotional. A man of few words who looks after the farm and leaves the raising of the girls mostly to his wife until her death where he has to step into the role of Tricia’s carer.
The overarching themes in this story are obviously mental health, suicide, grief, loss and trying to figure out who a person really was after they’ve gone and you are left behind with so many unanswered questions.
I honestly can’t put into words how I feel about this book. It feels very wrong to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but I tore through it in less than 24 hours. My head is buzzing with thoughts and my heart is very heavy. It has provoked an extremely strong reaction in me and is a book I will never ever forget.
Thank you as always to Matt Clacher and 4th Estate for the proof copy.
See you all soon.
Bookish Chat xxx