Ursula Holden Susannah Clapp - Essay

Susannah Clapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ursula Holden's first novel [Endless Race] was about the gruesomeness of a jealous sister. String Horses shows how nice and how necessary a sister can be. A combination of nasty events and vigorous detail is characteristic of some of the novels of Muriel Spark and most of Beryl Bainbridge's. It is a mixture which is used here with great effect….

There are many dire events and surprises. None of them are incidental to the main action and none of them are summarily dismissed, but all are tempered and made credible by the busy network of other observations which surround them: Hope gets married in a church whose cemetery has a special line in animal graves; flying to join her in Dublin Joanna is uneasily aware of the air hostess's "papist teeth". Among such quick-eyed notings there is neither room nor need for authorial gasps or hectorings.

At times the sisters seem to have stumbled into the wrong kind of setting; a sort of witchy wood in which they are isolated, partly by their own wish to be apart and together, but also by the strangeness of nearly everyone around them: characters whose names—Miss Delicate, Parson Shake—smack of Restoration drama, or who cultivate a peculiar fondness for aphoristic or oracular habits of speech and thought….

Good humour and clear-sightedness enable Ursula Holden to avoid that enshrining of oddity which leads to whimsicality….

Shrillness sounds when attention is drawn to what is going on: when we are told, for example, that the sisters' bickering is a "cover for a spiritual embrace" or that by continuing her "work of preventing life" and leaving her children alone, their mother has "evaded emotional responsibility". Such spelling out is unnecessary in a novel which demonstrates its despairs and pleasures with ease and wit.

Susannah Clapp, "Such Devoted Sisters," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3862, March 19, 1976, p. 311.