October Read: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
In the opening chapter of this gripping novel, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells her the story of the one-armed sister. It is a cautionary tale about a girl who is too curious, and disobeys her mother. It is this parable, told to Lala when she is 13 years old, that gives the novel its title: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House.
Thoughts of this tale and its purported lesson run through Cherie Jones’ compelling debut novel, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House was one of six first time nominees.
How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is set in Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, a destination that appears to be a paradise. However, when a rich tourist is murdered early in the novel, this vision of Baxter’s Beach shatters and an uglier underside is revealed.
The reader then follows a cast of characters who are in some way related to the murder. The novel flicks between the perspectives of Lala, Wilma, Tone, a local, and the newly widowed Mira Whelan, amongst a range of periphery characters.
‘Well I bet it not so bad having one arm’ says Lala. ‘She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house’. ‘Stupid girl,’ says Wilma. ‘How she gonna sweep it?’
The novel’s shifts in perspective and jumps in time are so unrelenting that they should be confusing, but the trajectory remains fixed and focused throughout. The pace is quick, with the novel’s crime drama aspects keeping the tension and suspense high. Despite this, at times it seems to lack cohesion, with some characters disappearing for extended periods of the text, and some flashbacks leaving me disorientated.
My investment in the characters did increase as multiple previously unknown links and connections are revealed throughout the text. The lives of the characters and their experiences of trauma are linked together much like the patterns of the hair that Lala weaves on the beach. The motif of this weaving, ‘over under over under’, is repeated throughout the novel, sometimes offering comfort to characters through its repetitive motion, but at times revealing sinister effects of correlation and inherited trauma.
(Over. Stop. Over. Under. Stop. Over. Stop. Under. Overunderoverunderoverunder. Stop.)
How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House doesn’t shy away from graphic violence. It dramatises the iterations of generational trauma, with domestic violence, violent crime and the death of a baby featuring prominently. At times the level of detail made me put down the book, an act that mirrors the tourists turning a blind eye to the real lives of the locals. This act is a privilege not afforded to the protagonists.
This novel, perhaps most importantly, is an exploration of the impossible choices women are faced with when trying to do what is best for themselves and their families. How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House asks readers repeatedly to consider the ways in which women are not in control of their own bodies, and the horrifying consequences that this can have.