REVIEW: Catherine Simpson, When I Had a Little Sister
5 October 2019
Palace Green Library
Review by Elvira Parr
In December 2013, Catherine Simpson found herself hurtling from Scotland to Lancashire to come face to face with the most devastating of news: her younger sister, Tricia, had committed suicide aged 46, after decades battling with mental illnesses. Her subsequent memoir, When I Had a Little Sister, is an equally heart-warming and heart-rending account that seeks to understand what drove Tricia to take her own life.
At Durham Book Festival’s event on Saturday, Simpson admits that the book may never have come to fruition. In the immediate aftermath of her death, the idea of trawling through Tricia’s many diaries was simply “too catastrophic, too frightening”. It was only when faced with a scheduled writers’ retreat in Scotland that Simpson decided it was time to undertake the mammoth task. By the end of the year, the first draft was completed.
The process, Simpson reveals, was as much for herself as anyone. In the midst of “grief with the volume turned up”, reminiscing on happy memories through Tricia’s diaries offered moments of joy and comfort, contrary to the “pages of black depression” Simpson had feared. Even an unused suicide note, thanking Simpson for her support, was a consolation. When guilt threatens to overwhelm every thought, such discoveries are invaluable, Simpson assures us.
Whilst undertaking the heaviest of subject matters, the joy of Simpson’s interview with Richard Benson on Saturday was its balance of humour and tragedy, characteristic of her writing style, and perhaps what makes her approach to the topic so accessible. “There are always moments of laughter in the saddest of times,” Simpson insists (as she unabashedly points out the irony of using a “Bag for Life” to hold her late sister’s belongings), and often moments when the absurdity of life is so great that all we can do is laugh.
Indeed, from the distance of “reader”, much of Simpson’s description of her family’s farm life seems comical, even caricatured. However, reality is often much crueller, and much of the memoir analyses the taciturnity of the Simpsons’ household as a source of Tricia’s illness. “How simple it seems, the idea of sitting down and talking,” she muses. Yet, during her childhood, the idea of open expression and communication was positively abhorrent.
Unable to express themselves, Simpson recalls how both mother and daughter explored other means: one shutting herself in the piano room whilst the other smashed glass alone against a barn wall. Tricia, meanwhile, seemed to “transform overnight” into a reserved, withdrawn girl, susceptible to what a simple lack of understanding had the family label her “moods”.
Thankfully, our society today is far more familiar with mental illness, in many ways due to accounts such as Simpson’s, who has reacted to her childhood experiences by “talking constantly, about everything” with her own daughter. When considering the invasiveness of publishing much of her sister’s diaries, she concluded that anything felt better than simply slipping back into the old habit of silence. “Tricia was so compassionate,” she affirms, “she would have approved it knowing it had helped people.”
Of course, nothing can completely heal the trauma and lingering regret. “Ironically,” she says, “I wish I had been more silent. I wish, instead of trying to fix her and always expecting a response, I’d just been there to show her I was there.” Yet, as the final applause quietened and each audience member left, eager to continue the conversation, it seemed that there was little more Simpson could’ve done to memorialise her sister’s memory than to so generously share her story with us that afternoon.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.