What if you could always be a child? Live in that Idyllic world? How many among us would go back and make that choice? Jemima Weiss would, and all throughout this extraordinary debut she tells you why.
With a child's voice that is in perfect pitch, Jemima Weiss narrates this tale of what happens when you are in love, deeply and madly, with your family. Having never really recovered from her idyllic childhood, Jem grows up and into madness. In seven episodic chapters that circle back on one another, Jem revisits her formative years and elaborates on her education in convent schools, her fascination with W.W.II games, her parents, and her siblings. But most of all, we learn of how the loss of the intimate surroundings of her family have made her "Sister Crazy."
Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, SISTER CRAZY is a bit off-putting at first. There is a lot of information that comes at you in a very short amount of time. But when it comes right down to whether you keep reading or put the book away, you keep reading because you need to know what happens to this girl and her siblings. The characters draw you in and do not let you down.
Jem, the inquisitive middle child of five, has a very vivid imagination and a reverence for her family that is nothing short of remarkable. Her younger sister, Harriet, is a gem of a character. Jem often refers to her as an angel and as having a heartbreaking way about her. I found this to be true, for Harriet left me wishing I had a sister who danced crazy and didn't like her food to touch. Jem's older brother, Jude, is the object of the bulk of Jem's affections, and she imbues him with charm and grace and humanity to spare. Add to these Ben, the oldest brother with a gothic sensibility that makes him special, and Gus, the youngest, the golden boy, and you have a family that barely needs parents. But these kids have them...and not only do they love their children, they respect and cherish each other.
There are moments in this book that are downright laugh-out-loud funny. The chapter where Jem writes a book of rules is hilarious, as is the section where she wants to duel with a nun who calls her on her half-Jewish upbringing. And watch out when Harriet drinks a sip of champagne.
There are also moments that are amazingly deep and heartbreaking. Jem's gathering of clues to prove that her mother is not of this world is one of them. Another is the shift that occurs after an exchange with Ben, toward the end. This is where SISTER CRAZY all comes together. The whole point of the book is laid out bare --- Jem is not willing to leave the past, and never was, not even when she was living it. The aging of her parents and her siblings harms her more than one would expect. As she says, "The truth is I am pretty worried about olden times, I am mixed up about them, I don't know if things were better then or just different, and mostly I can't see how we grew out of them."
As humorous as it is tense, the voice here is intelligent and hopeful. The text is filled with great slang and childlike energy. The narrative is very smart but quite murky in tone, and there is an odd shift toward the end where Jem talks to an unidentified "you." I found myself wondering who that was...Jude? Harriet? Lover? Psychiatrist? All in all, SISTER CRAZY is ultimately a very deep and quite moving look at how "the gulf between you and you is something terrible" and how to look across that gulf and see good things in the water.
Not to be ignored, SISTER CRAZY boasts fabulous cover art and one of the most perfect dedications I have seen in a while --- it seems only right to dedicate a book about being in love with your family to your family.
Reviewed by Josette Kurey on April 24, 2001