I have a friend with three sisters. Four girls in a family of only girls, each born a couple of years apart. She told me that three is the perfect number of sisters to have, and felt that, with only two daughters, she had left them inadequately sistered.
How, I wondered when I met her, could you befriend someone with so many sisters: surely she wouldn't need anyone else. But friends we have been for over 25 years, and very satisfying it has been.
"There is no friend like a sister
In calm and stormy weather."
wrote my own much older sister in my autograph book when I was a child. It was a quotation from Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market', a poem I used as a motif when I wrote A Charm of Powerful Trouble.
In that book there are two sisters, which is often the case in sister stories. Sisters in fairy tales often have a good, fair sister and an evil, dark one. There are the two sisters in Margaret Drabble's A Summer Birdcage, one of my favourite books. Sisters often compete with each other, as those two do, but when the chips are down, who do you turn to?
Though as far as I know Margaret Drabble still hasn't much to do with her sister AS Byatt.
Lear had three daughters, and three is a powerful, magic number, also often used in fairy tales.
But in Junichiro Tanizaki's (1886-1965) book The Makioka Sisters (1948) there are four sisters.
So far, I've read this book twice, but as I only discovered it a few years ago I can be forgiven for so few readings. I know I will read it again, and perhaps again.
It concerns four sisters in Osaka before the second world war. The two younger, unmarried sisters live with the second-oldest married one because they prefer to; normally they should live with the eldest. So they are slightly unconventional.
Things are changing in Japan, but these sisters are very traditional - or nearly so. They belong to a once great family who are declining in their fortunes. Most of the activity in the book comes from their attempts to marry off Yukiko, who is thirty and frustratingly shy and retiring. The youngest, Taeko, is twenty-five and the most unconventional; she is having a secret liaison and wants Yukiko to be married so that she can be next.
So action is limited (a book exactly the way I like it!) but every moment is fascinating. There is a Big Flood and a Big Storm, but the rest of the interest in in the characters. It's a quiet, nostalgic book, quite melancholy in its mood, as it depicts the end of a once-great family, and of a vanished era.
Typical is the episode of the squeaking obi:
"You are going to wear that obi?" asked Yukiko. Taeko was helping Sachiko tie the obi. "You wore that one - when was it?- we went to a piano recital."
"I did wear this one."
"And every time you took a breath it squeaked."
"Did it really?"
"Not very loud, but definitely a squeak. Every time you breathed. I swore I would never let you wear that obi to another concert."
"Which one shall I wear, then?" Sachiko pulled obi after obi from the drawer.
"This one." Taeko picked up an obi with a spiral pattern.
"Will it go with my kimono?"
"Exactly the right one. Put it on, put it on." Yukiko and Taeko had finished dressing some time before. Taeko spoke as though to a reluctant child, and stood before her sister to help tie the second obi. Sachiko knelt at the mirror and gave a little shriek.
"What is the matter?"
"Listen. Carefully. Do you hear? It squeaks." Sachiko breathed deeply to demonstrate the squeak.
"You are right. It squeaks."
The Makioka Sisters (1948)
This is a story that builds slowly and quietly, with a steady accretion of detail and character - until, by the end, you have absorbed the Makioka sisters into your own life. They are unforgettable.