Sister and Brother

Written by Agneta Pleijel
Review by Jo Ann Butler

In 1829, Isaac Berg seemed destined for greatness. He toured Europe for several years as an operatic tenor, and anyone talented enough to bring down the house at Venice had a bright future at Sweden’s Royal Opera House. However, Isaac is in love, and his future father-in-law refuses to let his daughter marry a performer. Disappointed, Isaac gives up the stage, weds Lina, and plans their son Albert’s future. Will he be a musician? A singer? When their baby’s deafness is revealed, Isaac pins his hopes on his next child, Helena.

Unable to hear and barely able to talk, Albert is acutely aware that he cannot communicate as others do. His frustration grows into tantrums, so when he is eight, he is placed in an institute for the deaf and blind. Will Albert ever find self-expression?

As for Helena, her singing voice is angelic. She is strictly tutored by her father, who craves the artistic recognition for her that he surrendered. He controls every aspect of her life, and Helena comes to realize that she is kept nearly as mute as her brother.

Using family stories and letters, Agneta Pleijel draws on the life of artist Albert Berg – her great-grandfather – for her sensitive historical novel, Sister and Brother. Ms. Pleijel’s thoroughly-researched narrative explores 19th-century cultural views of women and deaf persons, groups which share a struggle for autonomy. At times Ms. Pleijel steps in to address the reader directly, filling in background or expressing her own feelings about her great-grandparents’ lives, and I particularly liked those mini-conversations with the author. I also very much liked Sister and Brother.