Six Unconventional Sets of Sisters From Books

Category: Reading

It’s World Sister Day… Well, yesterday was World Sister Day. Even though we’re slightly late to the party, we still wanted to celebrate by paying homage to some of our favourite, unconventional sisters from books.

These sisters are less loving, supportive and wholesome and more weird, warring and unconventional – enjoy!

Constance and Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Throughout all of Shirley Jackson’s work there is a lingering feeling of uncertainty that is both disconcerting and addictive. So it is with her 1962 book We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman, Merricat Blackwood, who lives in a large house on the outskirts of town with her older sister and Uncle. We Have Always Lived in the Castle details the history of the family, the reasons for their strained relationship with the local community and the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of the sisters’ parents, aunt and younger brother six years ago.

The book focuses on the often unsettling relationship between the two sisters, their loyalty to one another and specifically, Merricat’s inability to let anyone come between them. Through careful identification with Merricat, the narrative voice subtly builds uncertainty in the reader, creating a growing ambivalence toward Merricat and the rest of the family.


Geek Love Cover
Elly and Iphy Binewski from
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love has become a cult favourite since it first appeared in 1989, selling 400,000 copies and influencing creatives from Kurt Cobain to director Terry Gilliam. The book centres on the less-than-typical Binewski clan, a family of genetically enhanced ‘freaks’ that run a sideshow act. Within the family are the beautiful conjoined twins Elly and Iphy, who are responsible for attracting crowds to the family’s act.

The sisters’ relationship is complicated. Elly dislikes being a twin and yet still wants to be the centre of her sister’s attention. Their popularity within the family show instils jealousy in their brother Arty. He attempts to undermine the two’s relationship by playing on Iphy’s frustrations toward Elly, who remains unaware of her siblings’ machinations.


The Three Sisters from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

You’d be hard-pressed to find a set of sisters more unsettling than these witches, from one of Shakespeare’s most widely read plays. Appearing before the titular character proclaiming he will soon become King of Scotland, the sisters return throughout the play, influencing the unstable mind of an increasingly maniacal character intent on preserving his position of power.

The sisters are an ambiguous presence and function in an interesting way throughout the play. Is the audience supposed to interpret them as individual agents, intent on polluting the mind of a weak and ambitious soldier? Or simply mythical presences communicating the inevitable fates of the different characters? Ultimately, these questions go unanswered and the play is all the more rewarding as a result.  


Sansa and Arya Stark from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones

In terms of unconventional strong female characters Sansa and Arya Stark, from George R.R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy universe, are right up there. Despite reaching positions of power and respect, the two sisters’ differences are marked and their routes to maturity are very different.

After witnessing the execution of her father, Eddard Stark, Arya swears revenge against all the people that had a hand in his death (specifically the sadistic young king-in-waiting, Joffrey Baratheon). Escaping King’s Landing, Arya wanders the Seven Kingdoms and after much training becomes an expert assassin that can steal the faces of her victims. Sansa, on the other hand, transitions from a naive young girl cruelly manipulated and abused by Joffrey and his equally sinister mother, Cersei Lannister, to a political player in her own right. 


The Blind Assassin Cover
The Chase sisters from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Spanning two World Wars, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin examines the fractured relationship between sisters Iris and Laura over the course of their lives. The differences between the impulsive Iris and grounded Laura inform their fraught relationship and Atwood’s complex book taps into the darker aspects of the human condition, such as sibling rivalry, desire, greed and betrayal. As the narrative progresses the reader slowly learns more about the relationship between the two and, ultimately, the circumstances that led to Laura’s suicide.

The book won numerous awards after it was published in 2000, including the Booker and Hammett prizes, and highlights the limited opportunities and dangerous position women inhabited throughout much of the 20th century.


Sally and Kate From Nuala Ellwood’s My Sister’s Bones

Nuala Ellwood’s debut novel deals with psychological implications of war as well as the debilitating effects of childhood tragedy. Returning home from war-torn Syria after the death of her mother, Kate begins to lose her grip on reality after becoming convinced that a young boy is being abused in the house next door.

Battling her increasingly precarious hold on reality – and her sister’s struggles with alcoholism – Kate slowly uncovers the memories of her youth and the traumatic events she and Sally experienced in childhood. Ellwood’s first book is self-assured, grounded and realistic in its depiction of repressed memory.

Need more strong women in your life? Check out our Strong Women from Scottish Fiction book list. 

Or find out more about the life and work of James Baldwin in our latest piece on rebellious writers.

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