“Death is a thousand tiny losses and each loss is a thousand tiny details.”
When I Had A Little Sister is a memoir by Catherine Simpson which reflects on the suicide of her younger sister Tricia. In the book, she takes a look back at her younger life with her family living on a farm in Lancashire and in particular her relationship with her sister. It is full of anecdotes and reminiscences about her childhood, her parents and her grandparents. Many of the stories made me recall my own similar memories and took me right back to my own childhood. The author’s mother sounded a formidable no-nonsense woman who although did not often express her love with words, showed it through her care for her family.
I particularly loved the old photos scattered throughout the book and often referred to. They really added to the book for me. The family resemblances between the author, her sisters and her own daughters are striking. Like the author, our family has a huge box of photos in my attic which, with no-one left to ask, are now “a sea of sepia strangers whose lives [are] stories lost to the past.” Asking about the people in the photos when her mother was alive was met with a glare “Telling stories was gossiping, even if the people involved had been dead for a generation.”.
This is an emotive and honest portrayal of the raw grief felt at any death, but particularly a death so untimely and tragic. The helplessness and disbelief will be so recognisable to anyone who has lost a loved one, especially unexpectedly or suddenly. It is clear how Tricia’s death devastated the family. The feelings of blame, of guilt, the ‘what ifs’ are all laid bare in this book. I’m sure that most people would have similar emotions and thoughts in such a tragic situation. The author is frank about how at times she feels she failed her sister but also recognising that she did what she could and would never be able to know why her sister took her life.
“How simple it seems, the idea of sitting down and talking, but it was not simple, it was very complicated; in fact it was impossible.” In the Simpson family, people did not talk about their feelings, even if something was clearly wrong. Reading Tricia’s diaries after her death, gave Catherine Simpson an insight into how her sister experienced life, often seeing events very differently from her own recollections. In the diaries, we see a troubled woman, one who did at times recognise the help and love her family tried to give.
Through this book we see the importance of communication, of talking about feelings and asking for help. No-one can tell if more openness would have saved Tricia, but talking about feelings and emotions is so incredibly important for everyone. It is not a sign of weakness to admit you are struggling and need help. In fact, it’s a sign of courage and strength.
It almost seems wrong to say I enjoyed this book given it is about the loss of a much loved sister. But although there are of course incredibly sad parts of the book, it’s not a sad or depressing read. In fact, there is a lot of humour throughout. The author has written honestly and openly about her family’s experiences in this memoir making it insightful, compelling and very moving.
My thanks to the publishers, 4th Estate, for sending me a review copy of this book. It will be published on 7th February as an ebook and in hardback. I would encourage you to buy this book from your usual book retailer but if you would prefer a Kindle version, you can order one online here: When I Had a Little Sister
From the back of the book
When I had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson is a searingly honest and heartbreaking account of growing up in a farming family, and of Catherine’s search for understanding into what led her younger sister to kill herself at 46. It’s a story of sisters and sacrifice, grief and reclamation, and of the need to speak the unspeakable.
When did she decide to die? Was it before midnight on Friday the 6th, because she couldn’t face another night or was it before dawn on Saturday the 7th because she couldn’t face another day?
Did she think about us? Did she think about her dog, Ted, or her cat, Puss, sleeping on Grandma Mary’s old sofa in the conservatory and who would be waiting for her to feed them in the morning? What about her horses in the stable? Did she think about them? Did she imagine Dad finding her? It would have to be Dad, after all. It couldn’t be anyone else.
Did she know what she was doing?
On a cold December day in 2013 Catherine Simpson received the phone call she had feared for years. Her little sister Tricia had been found dead in the farmhouse where she, Catherine and their sister Elizabeth were born – and where their family had lived for generations.
Tricia was 46 and had been stalked by depression all her life. Yet mental illness was a taboo subject within the family and although love was never lacking, there was a silence at its heart.
After Tricia died, Catherine found she had kept a lifetime of diaries. The words in them took her back to a past they had shared, but experienced so differently, and offered a thread to help explore the labyrinth of her sister’s suicide.
About the author
Catherine Simpson is a novelist, journalist, poet and short story writer based in Edinburgh.
Her memoir When I Had a Little Sister is forthcoming from 4th Estate in February 2019. Her debut novel Truestory was published by Sandstone Press in 2015.