The Easter Parade can be seen as a bleak novel in that great swathes of sadness, loneliness and ugliness permeate through the protagonists’ lives. Much of this is due to Yates’s simple, matter-of-fact style. He relates the story in a no-frills way, so that the utter pointlessness of life pokes through like a bony white toe through a threadbare sock. He rarely dwells on events and in many ways skims over the joys – motherhood, aunthood, love, friendship – that punctuate life. Seen from this vantage point, any life might appear bleak: the bitter-sweetness of childhood, the disappointment of finding that noone is perfect, the vileness of physically and emotionally cruel people, serial monogamy which, if a person ends up single, can be seen pessimistically as a series of failures, the ant-like way we live, scurry around and then die. That Yates manages to make the novel not only readable but also mesmerising is testament to his powers as a story teller. In Yates’s hands, less does mean more, his pared-down style and conscious absence of literary gymnastics resulting in story-telling that is simultaneously easy to digest and hugely satisfying.
The story follows the lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes, daughters of divorced parents, born in 1921 and 1925 respectively. Growing up with their flighty mother with occasional visits to their idealised father, they are very different. Sarah embraces conventionality and settles down early for what she hopes is an idyllic life with English public school-educated Tony who, to her infatuated eyes, looks like a young Laurence Olivier. Emily is spikier and more independant; she samples sex before marriage and decides she rather likes it, so she follows a more (for the time) daring route in life, working and having serial relationships with men. But long-term happiness is elusive for both sisters. Throughout their lives, they keep in touch, and their sisterly relationship is as complex as sibling relationships can be, their undoubted mutual love coloured with swirls of jealousy and intolerance.
The simplicity of Yates’s style is in many ways deceptive – huge themes are tackled, but with a touch so light that the ensuing thought-process is largely the reader’s. This works well – rather than being force-fed processed emotions like a foie gras goose with purreed nutrients , the reader bites the crisp, uncluttered text and thinks for themselves. When Yates writes of Emily meeting her father for lunch ‘she thought he looked surprisingly old as he came down the steps, wearing a raincoat that wasn’t quite clean’, he encapsulates succinctly the shock many people feel when they first become conscious of their ageing parents’ impending mortality and their fallibility.
Perhaps the book’s blackness is in part due to Yates’s refusal to give in to sentimentality – he doesn’t describe the little joys that characterise the good parts in a relationship or life, so that the reader is left with a skeletal sketch of the failures of each. But peering through the dark, I did catch glimpses of hope. For all Tony’s grim, bigoted, veiled thuggishness and the joylessness of two of his sons, his and Sarah’s middle son Peter is a ray of light, a kind, sensitive person who responds to Emily’s reaching out. Even at the end, after Emily’s bitter outburst, he is willing to welcome her into his home – the book’s first suggestion of unconditional affection for a long time.
The thing that made this novel so sad, yet so very moving at the same time, was the fact that each sister was miserable with how their life turned out yet, they envied the life that the other one had. Although I never had a sister, I felt deeply for the Grimes sisters, and rooted for each of them at different times. Themes of how early promise can erode is most evidenced by how Sarah’s once-promising and beautiful life morphs into something straight out of a very sad movie. She clings to her early dreams of how things should be by resisting any kind of change; the brutality and ugly moments in her life are glossed over in her own mind, reminding us that nothing changes without our own desire to make that happen.
If you love fine literature and an author who can pull you into the lives of his characters, then I know you will enjoy The Easter Parade. If I had to change one thing about this novel, I would have liked to have had it told in alternating POVs instead of just Emily. Despite this, I would highly recommend this book.