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The complex sibling relationship in life and fiction

I hate conflict so much that I’ll accept a cold, undercooked meal garnished with a strand of the chef’s hair rather than complain. I let other drivers cut me off without so much as swearing under my breath and I apologise when someone bumps into me on the footpath.

But rewind thirty years and apparently I couldn’t get enough of it, as long as the conflict was with my older brother. We fought in the car, we fought in front of the tv, we fought in the backyard. We battled over Lego, play dough and the middle seat in Mum’s Mazda.

Yet, at school, my brother was my fiercest defender. If I was ever upset, it was my brother to whom I would run. I always felt safe with him as my protector, regardless of how fiercely we fought at home.

It is a dichotomy that is familiar to many siblings, who are tied together in a relationship that is strange and complex, full of contradictions, and veers wildly between love and resentment, complicity and rivalry.

The nuanced relationship between siblings was captured in All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel which largely follows the lives of a blind French girl and a young German radio operator in World War II. But the part of the book that struck me and sent me reeling back to my childhood was the relationship between Werner, the German boy and his sister Jutta, who was two years younger; the same age gap as that between my brother and me.

In the book, the two orphans lived in a children’s home, run by a kind French nun “more fond of children than of supervision”. The children walked the streets and laneways of their dusty mining town together, drew pictures together and become infatuated by the world of radio together.

However, despite their closeness and reliance on each other, tensions began to appear when Werner and Jutta’s perspectives diverged, with Werner’s caution about the impending war conflicting with Jutta’s idealism. After they were physically separated when Werner won a place at a prestigious training college, they did not have the opportunity to repair their relationship.

In many ways, the children’s experience is far removed from my experience of growing up in Ballarat with my three brothers and both parents, but there was something about the bond between the siblings that I found particularly poignant and recognisable.

Perhaps it was the sense of the everyday closeness between the siblings, of a childhood lived in parallel with another. Siblings share a history that runs deep, without ever being articulated; a constant push and pull of growing up so closely together.

Or perhaps it was the heartbreaking idea of siblings losing the opportunity to grow back together after troubling times that touched me so deeply; the usual ebb and flow of the sibling relationships was cut short at a time of distance for the two characters.

English writer Rose Macauley identified the strong and strange bond between siblings when she said:

“We know one another’s faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws.”

Now that my children are three and five, I am a witness to the beginnings of that complex sibling relationship. My son and daughter waver between being best buddies and fierce opponents, one minute playing peacefully, and the next, lunging at each other. My heart warms when I see the former and I clench my teeth at the latter. But I understand that this will continue, and it is not necessarily a bad thing.

All the Light We Cannot See is not the first book with a relationship between siblings that I felt struck at the truth and reality of the family condition.

Little Women, showcased a complex family relationship, with the sisters’ closeness offset by the battles resulting from their individual personalities. The book highlights the contradictions of sibling relationships, with love and familiarity occasionally giving rise to conflict.

Ian McEwan explores a different type of sibling relationship in his book, The Cement Garden. The novel follows four abruptly orphaned children as they sample life without their parents. The book is unsettling in its exposure of the strange, but strangely understandable, behaviour of siblings as they attempt to navigate a new, adult life.

My Family and Other Animalsprovides a humorous take on sibling relationships. The book provides an account of a family’s holiday in Corfu, in which siblings almost constantly behave in ways that appear quite absurd to the others. As is the case during many families’ holidays, the everyday eccentricities of family members are magnified.

In The Watch Tower, Elizabeth Harrower presents a sadder picture of family life for siblings, Clare and Laura, who endure a claustrophobic existence living with Laura’s emotionally stunted husband after they are deserted by their mother. The two swing between dependence and blame, a need to stay together and desire to separate.

As I Lay Dying depicts siblings who are journeying to the burial of their mother. The relationship between the siblings in William Faulkner’s classic novel was at once distant and familiar; honest and restrained; critical but supportive. The tragic circumstances of the novel highlighted the many idiosyncracies of the siblings, as they dealt with the grief in their own, very different ways.

It is the very complexity of many sibling relationships that means that it is possible to detect at least a hint of recognition when we read about these diverse families in literature, despite circumstances being quite different to our own.   Journalist and writer Jeffrey Kluger alluded to the strange, complex dynamic between siblings when he said:

“Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.”

And perhaps that is it. Our siblings tie us to our past, and our true natures, in a way no one else can. They are part of our history that remains, ever reminding us of our flawed and partially-formed, essential selves.

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