Them Roper Girls by David G Bailey
Families can be complicated, and the family depicted in this fictional joint autobiography of four sisters is certainly more complex than most. Angela, Janet, Lucy and Karen were born in the 1950s to Grace Roper, but there is some doubt whether they were all the offspring of her husband Eric; especially Karen. They have a younger brother, Billy, and this book tells of their life in the fifties and sixties, growing up with an assortment of their parents and other relatives jointly and separately. It is a book that has a simplified family tree which is useful for checking as the girls contribute their stories and observations over four sections, as their life stories continue into the seventies, the eighties and nineties and finally the nineties through tweenies.
This is a novel that certainly kept me reading as the siblings, their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins revolve around the edges and occasionally the central role of their lives, before the acquisition of husbands and lovers and children. As with many large families there is almost an intergenerational overlap between various individuals, and the relationships become even more complex. Only Karen would have any literary pretensions; it is not always clear why each of the girls is setting down their account, unless it is simply to record their version of family events and the truth of their own understanding. This is a vivid, sometimes visceral story of the inside of a family, through the eyes of “unreliable narrators” as Karen calls them, pictures of a family over events, holidays and times of pressure which gives the opportunity to observe feelings when heightened. A cast of those outside the central family shifts and changes, but are always referred to, even if only in contrast. This is a fascinating collection of stories which shows the complexity of relationships and expectations in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond for women and the unorthodox links between a group of sisters. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.
One of the main drivers of the sisters’ complex lives is the unreliability of their parents Grace and Eric. Eric has short term jobs at best, and often works as a long-distance lorry driver who spends a variable amount of time at home. Not that the girls are settled in one place; they are moved on as work and affordable accommodation presents themselves, and Grace’s mental state allows between births. They live in a small town, then there is a big move to live with grandparents, except that at least one of the sisters stays with an aunt. Angela and Janet are sometimes referred to as “Irish twins” not just because they were born within the same year, but also because of the family’s supposed links with Ireland. This separation creates some tension in the relationships, as Angela sees herself as having to care for the younger siblings, whereas they have other views. There are petty jealousies and obsessions, disagreements and disappointments as the girls grow up and test the waters of adult and complex relationships, get married, have children and deal with the loss of older family members.
This book revolves around the idea that these for girls, as they grow, are known as the Roper girls, vivacious, attractive and strong characters each in their own way. As the story is narrated in the first person the girls’ stories are not only revealing of their own lives and thoughts, but also of a world and communities of change, confusion and challenges interpreted through their eyes. A memorable and fascinating read, full of the detail of lives that are fully lived, revealing so much in their individual and vivid ways. It is a fascinating and enjoyable book which I found entertaining and full of insight into realistic lives.