12 Great Books About Siblings
A list of literature’s most complicated relations, by Katharine Noel
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In Freud’s worldview, sibling dynamics are an extension of Oedipal/Electra complexes, focused on competition for parental attention. It’s a model that reminds me of what I’ve read about opossums, which are born smaller than honeybees and crawl up to their mother’s pouch: once all her teats are claimed, latecomers starve to death. While Freud’s theories don’t present the stakes as literal survival, one child receiving sustenance means another will be left wanting.
I’m interested in how complicated and essential siblings can feel to one another. A sibling attachment can be as real a partnership as any, based on love and connection — and also on missed chances and misunderstandings, petty grudges and silly inside jokes, moments of deep affinity and total alienation, the chemistry — that we more often associate with romantic relationships.
In my latest novel, Meantime (Grove, 2016), Claire’s husband Jeremy gets drawn back into a relationship with the woman he loved in high school. Claire, who has always prided herself on her originality and independence, becomes preoccupied with her marriage to the degree that she loses sight of herself. But her truest and deepest connection is to her stepsister, Nicole. When both girls were young, Claire’s father and Nicole’s mother fell in love, and the two families decided that living together would be the least disruptive course. Claire’s parents try to sell her on the idea of merged households by declaring that it’s lucky to choose one’s family. Claire is too young to recognize the flaw in this logic — that she actually hasn’t been given any choice in the matter — but as an adult, she and Nicole do choose each other as family.
And so it’s probably unsurprising that some of my favorite books concern siblings whose lives are tangled up together. George Eliot and Jane Austen and James Baldwin and Christina Stead have all written unforgettably about siblings, and there are intense sibling relationships in Renaissance drama and the Bible and fairy tales and the legends of King Arthur and mythologies from around the world. For this list, though, I’ve restricted myself to some recent books I love: novels, and also essays, and poetry, and comics, all with complicated sibling bonds. These siblings feel love, hate, envy, and fierce protectiveness — sometimes in turn, sometimes all at once.
- Akhil Sharma, Family Life
When Ajay is a child, his brilliant older brother, Birju, knocks his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and is without oxygen for several minutes, leaving him blind and severely brain damaged. This novel is beautiful and devastating, and yet manages to be darkly funny. (What’s more, God appears to Ajay as Clark Kent.) As much as Birju shapes Ajay’s life before the accident, he continues to shape it after, a shadowy half-sibling to him.
2. Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved
I first read Katherine Patterson when I was eight, and I still remember the electric moment — the jangle of confusion and excitement — of realizing that her protagonists had bad thoughts and still got to be protagonists. Gilly Hopkins is a racist and a bully; Jesse Aarons is jealous of his friend Leslie even though he loves her. And Sara Louise (“Wheeze”) Bradshaw hates her golden sister Caroline. Because this is fiction for kids, you expect Wheeze to be corrected at some point, taught by the narrative to be nicer — but there’s no falsity in Paterson, and Wheeze and Caroline never come to like each other.
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Elfrieda is a world-renowned concert pianist, married to a man she loves, and so desperately sad that she’s attempted suicide twice. Her sister Yolandi would do anything for her except the one thing Elfrieda actually asks. As Yolandi puts it: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” It is this kind of sharp insight and clear-eyed rendering of emotion that makes the book gripping where it might otherwise be unremittingly bleak.
4. Marie Howe, What the Living Do
The title poem of this collection is addressed to Howe’s brother after his death from AIDS; it begins with the mundanity of “Johnny, the sink’s been clogged for days, some utensil probably” and rises to a lyrical cry of grief and longing and impossible joy at the prospect of living on in a world that feels broken apart. Many of the other, less famous, poems in the collection are also about the poet and her siblings, banding together in childhood against their father’s violence, or, as grown ups, trying to leave behind the toxicity of their family while still holding onto one another.
5. Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
One of the most moving depictions I’ve read of siblings caring for (in both senses of that phrase) one another. In a small-town Mississippi, Esch and her brothers try to brace for the coming Hurricane Katrina. Esch is fifteen, sometimes sullen, in love with the boy who got her pregnant and with Greek mythology; that she is such an unconventional heroine is part of what makes her a great one. Ward dedicates this book to her late brother, Joshua, whose life and death she writes about in the (also terrific) memoir Men We Reap.
6. Lynda Barry, The Freddie Stories, My Perfect Life and The Greatest of Marlys
Choosing three of Lynda Barry’s books may look like cheating, but I’m going to treat these three books as a trilogy, one from the perspective of each of the Mullen siblings. In our post-Maus, post Persepolis, post-Fun Home landscape, most of us acknowledge the greatness of the graphic novel as an art form, but the comic strip — which is how Barry describes the work collected in these volumes — is still undervalued. Childhood here burns so fiercely with betrayal and sadness and self-protective self-deception that even the occasional moment of joy comes singed around the edges. Barry’s work almost looks like it could have been drawn by a kid, which just drags you all the more sharply back to that time.
7. Antonya Nelson, Living to Tell
Antonya Nelson is best known for her short stories, but it’s her novels I find myself returning to again and again. The siblings at the heart of Living to Tell are drawn without any sentimentality — Winston, recently out of prison, is sleeping with a sad neighborhood man for money; Mona has just been dumped by her married lover; together-seeming Emily is barely happier than her more obviously flailing brother and sister. By the end of the novel, the siblings have found a fragile happiness that Nelson lets you know is no less important for being temporary.
8. Junot Diaz, Drown
On their surfaces, these stories have different concerns, but running underneath many of them is the relationship between Yunior and his older brother, Rafa. Yunior is proud of his fierce intelligence, but he believes he’d trade it in a second to be more like Rafa: handsome, cool, promiscuous. Don’t mirror me, Rafa tells him at one point when they’re teenagers, and Yunior mirrors back, Don’t mirror me. But of course, Yunior can’t truly turn himself into Rafa, and his sense of the luckiness and unluckiness of this limitation shifts constantly.
9. Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony
There’s a trend in the books I love: funny, dark, without pretense. Tilly is thirteen, struggling with a constellation of cognitive and emotional issues that no one has been able to diagnose, but the book is just as much the story of her neurotypical younger sister. From page six, when eleven-year old Iris reports on her sister sing-songing to their father, “Daddy, gonna to suck your cock” — and the father’s weary “Cut it out, Tilly” — you know this novel is going to be taking no prisoners. Among the many things for which I’m grateful here: staring at this book’s beautiful but somehow unsettling cover, I saw for the first time that the word “harm” is embedded in “harmony.”
10. Elisa Albert, editor, Freud’s Blind Spot
These twenty-four essays are filled with love and wit and irony. In Elisa Albert’s introduction, she writes of siblings, “They may love us and support us, they may baffle and annoy us, they may let us down, fail us utterly, but there they are, forever, blood peers from whom we can’t ever quite escape.” And then, because this is Elisa Albert, too smart to ever rest in even a complicated generality, she admits, “Or maybe that’s what I imagine, since in truth I have no fucking clue.” (I’m going to sneak two more suggestions in here: Elisa Alberts novels don’t quite fit this list, though the protagonist of Book of Dahlia has an estranged brother, and the protagonist of After Birth tries to turn her friends into sister figures, often disastrously. But they are furious, brilliant books and you should read them.)
11. Christopher Coe, I Look Divine
When this novel came out in 1987, I was a teenager in a Mid-Atlantic suburb. It was a fine place to grow up, but without much glamour: my friends and I had afterschool jobs at mini-malls; the height of sophistication was ordering pizza topped with Canadian bacon and canned pineapple. I Look Divine was like nothing I’d ever read before. The unnamed narrator cleans out the beautiful, ruined apartment of his younger brother Nicholas, who has been murdered by an anonymous pick-up. Nicholas’s hyper-stylization, his obsession with presentation and appearance, is mirrored in the novel’s hyper-stylized language and structure. A writer could do such a thing! I’d had no idea. I lay on my bed in what had been intended as the basement rec-room — fake-wood paneling, the occasional centipede, pretty much the opposite of glamour — reading and re-reading Coe’s sentences, sharp and glittering as broken crystal.
12. Carol Anshaw, Carry the One
After a wedding, the bride’s brother and sister — a little drunk, a little sleepy — are partially to blame for a terrible accident. The novel ranges over the next twenty-five years, tracing the siblings divergent — but never truly separate — paths. As Carmen, Nick and Alice variously move in and out of love affairs and marriages, making lives that seem to center on having children, or making art, or doing drugs, it is their connection to one another that is the book’s true center.
About the Author
Katharine Noel teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, Halfway House, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and winner of the Kate Chopin Writing Award as well as the Ken/NAMI Award. Her writing has won grants from the Rona Jaffe, Henfield-Transatlantic, and Barbara Deming foundations, and she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.