Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue

Written by Christine Higdon
Review by Jessica Brockmole

The women of the McKenzie family have always been resilient, but challenges—their father’s death in a lumbering accident, their only brother’s death to Spanish flu, and their mother’s opium addiction—have tested the four McKenzie sisters’ once-close relationship. Romantic Harriet-Jean busies herself with caring for their mother and dreaming about another woman. Practical Georgina escapes into an unhappy marriage and middle-class respectability, charming Morag into a much happier marriage with police detective Llewelyn, and radical Isla into an affair with her sister’s husband.

All are preoccupied with their own problems until an unexpected phone call brings them together. Isla is in the hospital after a near-fatal back-alley abortion, illegal in 1920s Canada. None had known about Isla’s pregnancy and, they also realize, not as much about one another as they used to. Amid Isla’s recovery and the ensuing police investigation, the four sisters wrestle with grief and hope, with courage and weakness, with vengeance and forgiveness.

Higdon writes an emotionally searing novel, about sisterhood and the lengths that we go to in order to protect the ones we love. She effectively conveys the limitations women faced in the past and manages to paint her characters in sympathetic ways, despite their faults and their actions. Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue has many narrators—the four sisters, Llewelyn, and even a dog named Rue—each with their own imperfections, fears, and secret longings. They narrate with heart and honesty, with thoughtfulness and vivacity. Despite the many narrators, it remains a story about sisters and their unshakable bond. Higdon is an adept writer. Her prose sparkles, at times lyrical, at times humorous. I look forward to reading more by Christine Higdon.