My Sister Jill
This short book is a memorable portrait of a dysfunctional family in post-WWII Australia. Flashbacks reveal Jack Wheatly’s traumatic childhood – his mother died when he was two from a self-inflicted abortion – and the terrible conditions he endured in a Japanese prison camp during the war. Most of the story is set in the 1950s and 60s, as Jack and Martha’s six children try to grow up in an atmosphere of alcoholism and emotional abuse. To the author’s credit, Jack is not a totally evil person. He is loyal to his army pals, tries in his way to play with and talk to his children, and declares it is wrong for a man to hit his wife. But he is drunk most of the time, can’t hold a job for long, and his vitriolic emotional abuse makes the rest of the family afraid of him. The children try to find ways to cope: Jill studies, Johnny sleeps a lot, May is artistic, twins Door and Mouse cling to each other, and Christine uses her vivid imagination to escape.
Not a lot happens in the book, but the author’s sentences tend to be short and punchy, which makes for a fast read. Cornelius either has firsthand knowledge of life in a dysfunctional family, or else is one heck of a researcher. Anyone who grew up with an alcoholic or emotionally abusive parent will recognize the truth of her portrayals. The characters will stay with you long after you finish.