book review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Little, Brown and Co, 2021

There’s a lot to admire in How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. It’s a gritty, unapologetic excavation of the wealth divide in a small Caribbean tourist destination, cleverly juxtaposing idyllic tourism with the locals’ reality of violence and poverty. I appreciate what this book was trying to do. But my god, did I hate reading it.

I neglected to highlight any passages and don’t particularly feel like going back to it now, so apologies for the lack of evidence, but I hated the writing style; I tend to struggle with books written in dialect and this was no exception. 

I also quickly grew weary of how relentlessly bleak it was. I don’t usually do this, but I made the mistake of reading my friend Marchpane’s review in the middle of writing this one and I cannot get over how succinctly she summarized my issues with this book, and anything I write in my own words about this would only be a pale imitation, so I am going to take the lazy route and just quote from her review (and I suggest you go read the whole thing):

This book’s traumas are so relentless—incest; viscerally brutal beatings; an incident you might call infanticide via neglect. There is really no light with the shade here, not that you necessarily need light and shade to tell a sad story. The never letting up is precisely the point this novel is making. And I have no doubt this is (tragically) true-to-life for many women out there.

But in a work of fiction, this has the effect of flattening everything about the characters to this aspect of their experience. I was never less than 100% conscious that I was reading about invented people, sketches on a page who only exist in order to show me this violence. It was a barrier between me and the characters that only grew, brick by brick, as each awful, violent incident unfolded.

To me, this is solidly the weakest offering on the Women’s Prize shortlist. It showcases an important cultural commentary, but lacks the literary craft to justify its accolades as a work of fiction. I think it’s a promising debut and hope that Jones will master the finesse needed to weave narrative and social commentary together in future works, but personally, I disliked this book’s style so strongly (a personal hangup, I’ll readily admit) that I’m not sure I’ll be following her career with much interest. 

Trigger warnings for a lot of things, mostly sexual assault and child death.

11 thoughts on “book review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

  1. I’ve just finished reading this book and I agree it is very very sad. However, I enjoyed reading it from the story perspective and I liked how different points of views revealed different details of what was going on.

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  2. I think we’ll disagree on this one! (with the caveat that I’m only two-thirds of the way through). While I do agree that the characters could have been more fully explored, I think the writing is great and her set-piece style chapters quite impressive. Perhaps I braced myself too much after reading so many reviews about it being relentlessly miserable, but I’m also not finding it significantly more grim than many other books I’ve read, though I guess it has the possibility to get worse in the last third… (Unsettled Ground was definitely a much grimmer read for me despite having fewer dramatically bad happenings).

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    • I’ll be really interested to read your review! I mean at the end of the day I just hated the writing style so much–100% a subjective thing, not a real piece of criticism–that I was never going to get fully on board with what this book was doing. Whereas I found Fuller’s prose a bit easier and more enjoyable to spend time with, so I didn’t resent the experience of reading that book quite as much, even if I think there’s a very easy to argument to be made about Unsettled Ground being ‘objectively’ the worse of the two. Either way, they’re solidly the only two that I don’t think deserve to win. (Also on a personal note I read this when I was VERY depressed a few months ago so I think the combination of bleakness + not enjoying spending time with the writing was really amplified by no fault of Cherie Jones’s.)

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      • I also thought Fuller’s prose was great, it was just the content I disliked 🙂 I’d add the Lockwood to the ‘don’t deserve to win’ category as well, but otherwise agree. I’m sorry to hear you read this during such a bad time x

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      • I definitely enjoyed the Lockwood more than you but it’s not my first or second choice to win. Basically I don’t think I’ll be happy with anything other than Transcendent Kingdom or Piranesi, though I’m already steeling myself for The Vanishing Half. Which I still need to review.

        And thank you, things are kiiind of looking up at least!

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  3. I have bought this book so it’d better be good LOL but I totally agree on the writing style, I’ve see one famous French author nominated for The Booker Prize (? not sure) and I really dislike his writing style but others enjoy it so..

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  4. Ok, so I can definitely take this off my list. I also struggle with books that are relentlessly bleak. I know that it is the tragic reality for many but it’s so hard to read in a book if there isn’t also some glimpses of hope or beauty.

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