English journalist and short-story writer Connolly (The Happiest Days, 2000) relates the bohemian adventures of the fabulously unconventional, beautiful, Garman siblings.
Nine children were born in the first decade of the 20th century to a prosperous country doctor and his cultured wife in England’s West Midlands, called the “Black Country” because of its numerous iron and coal mines. The subtitle notwithstanding, a boy joins three of his sisters to serve as main protagonists in Connolly’s serpentine and occasionally elliptical biography. Eldest daughter Mary, a painter, and gifted pianist Kathleen ran away to London and made a splash with the Café Royal crowd, living on the edges of Bloomsbury and attracting many admirers despite their lack of formal education. Mary wed the noted South African poet Roy Campbell and moved restlessly around Europe, enjoying affairs with Vita Sackville-West, among others. Kathleen’s lifelong liaison with sculptor Jacob Epstein led to four children, a rarefied network of artist friends, and eventual marriage. Meanwhile, handsome, bookish Douglas quit Cambridge to become a journalist and devoted communist, scrounging work at important new magazines such as Calendar of Modern Letters and Left Review, marrying twice and having a long affair with Peggy Guggenheim in between. Moreover, Douglas worked closely with publisher Ernest Wishart, who married the youngest Garman sister, 16-year-old Lorna. She was the most glamorous manslayer of them all, numbering poet Laurie Lee and painter Lucian Freud among her conquests. Heady lists of names, dates, titles of works, and neglected offspring flit through these pages; the reader needs a solid background in modernism to fill in between the lines, because the author does not provide historical context. Connolly is clearly smitten by the sisters’ glamour, yet horrified by their nonchalant childrearing, and in the end she can’t conceal a creeping impatience for their subservience to their lovers’ talents, despite their own artistic gifts.
A generous but ultimately critical assessment of lives conducted with style, if little substance.