The Other Sister, Philippa Werry, Pipi Press, 2021
Philippa Werry is one of my favourite New Zealand children’s authors. She is a fan of history and many of her novels take you back into the past. You get to experience historical events, characters and places that are so vividly detailed you feel you are there too. It is as though you are hiding behind the curtains witnessing a scene. It’s important, this rich research-dependent detail, but I am even more drawn to the way the past is reviewed in new lights. A trip to the past can reconsider how girls are shaped, how people of colour are treated, how damaging ideas are circulated. How individuals can make a difference.
Philippa’s most recent novel, The Other Sister, is set in 1920 after the end of World War One. It is sumptuous in detail and and resonates with refreshing lights. Tilly Thomas is about to go to secondary school. It is the beginning of a new decade and she wants to do ‘something remarkable’. But she has no idea who she is and how she wants to be in the world. Expectations for girls in 1920 were not what they are in 2022. Back then, marriage and babies was their chief destination.
I wished there was a map to follow, or a path, like the way I walked to school. I wished I knew that when I got to this intersection, this would happen, and when I crossed that road, I’d be up to that stage. The future’s so invisible. The Principal told us there were all these new opportunities waiting for us, but how would we know where to find them?
In her endnote, Philippa says the female characters are some of her favourite heroines. And I can see why. I love these young girls stretching into knowledge and new experiences, finding empathy. Tilly, of course, but also her sister Beaty, her best friend Olivia who lives in an orphanage, Ingrid, Molly, to name a few.
Even though the war had ended, the world was not the same. The sharp grim edges of war were brought home by soldiers – there were the wounded and there were the dead. The war was carried back on scarred bodies, in the troubled hearts and minds of the young men, and this heavy luggage affected friends and families. At the weekends, Tilly works in a nursing home with wounded men. At first she finds it tough. But she draws closer and closer to the residents and their stories, and it opens life wider. Education, as her school principal indicates, occurs in all kinds of ways. It is book learning, but it is so much more.
As I hide and observe from the nooks and crannies of the novel ( I am so embedded in it!), I take such comfort in seeing a young girl grow in strength and wisdom. To see her question racism and sexism. She is friendly with Jim Lee, a Chinese delivery boy, and despises the way others treat him. She becomes best friends with Ingrid, a German girl, and despises the way she is treated.
I love this intricately crafted, exquisitely written, entertaining book, that brims with warmth, humanity, insight. With life! I love how Tilly looks up to her older sister (she was the town’s first telegram girl in wartime), and is then able to find her own directions, her own self belief. In 2022 we live in a precarious time. Back then, there was the flu pandemic, and now we have Covid. We still witness and experience unspeakable racism, sexism, genderism, global hunger, a threat of war, actual wars. I am thinking too of the online misogyny directed at our Prime Minster (and other women MPs) because she is a woman. These things overwhelm and feel unspeakable, yet we must speak them.
We must speak the past in new lights in order to speak and address the present. Philippa’s sublime and enriching novel does exactly this. It is a book of now as much it is a book of then. I love it so much.
Philippa Werry website
Philip Werry lives in Wellington with her family. She was born in Auckland, went to school in Wellington, Auckland and New Plymouth. She wrote poems and stories from the age of six, some of which were published in The Evening Post. She studied Greek and English at university, travelled, trained to be a librarian, got married, travelled some more. Her writing has been published in the School Journal and her novels include The Telegram, Enemy at the Gate, The Lighthouse Family and Harbour Bridge. She has also written the nonfiction book: Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story.