Book Review - There is No Blue

In 2019, Canadian author Martha Baillie published Sister Language, a work of call and response, co-written with her eldest sister Christina. Weeks before publication, Christina killed herself. She left three lines on her bedroom wall: “Because of schizophrenia / Because of The Juniper Tree / Because of losing the house” And below in block capitals: “YOU CAN SAY GOODBYE.”

In There is No Blue, Baillie attempts to unpack what Christina, an artist and writer, meant by “her final poem”. Memories are inevitably fragmented, unruly, distorted, as Baillie recognises in these three memoiressays in which she explores the deaths of her mother, father and sister. In “Her Body”, Baillie describes how, in June 2018, she watched their mother Mary Jane’s life ebb away. Her sister is conspicuously absent as she washes her corpse, arranges for a friend to make a death mask and later cremates her.

It leads Baillie to reflect on the life of their father, Donald, who had died 25 years earlier. In the second essay, Baillie considers their parents’ marriage as she sifts through his youthful letters. Mary Jane, Donald claims, “saved me from a life of loneliness”. She recalls his love of mathematics and rowing boats, a passion for planting trees. By contrast, Christina believes their father molested her when she was a child (hence the reference to “The Juniper Tree”, Grimms’ fairy tale about child abuse). Christina blamed her first suicide attempt in her twenties on Donald.

Gradually, Baillie reveals the trauma at the heart of her family. Christina was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her forties. She was 61 when she hanged herself, after Baillie told her that they needed to sell their late mother’s Toronto home and split the proceeds. The final, and longest, essay, “You Can Say Goodbye”, is an unflinching examination of Baillie’s guilt stemming from this decision: “How could I consider moving a paranoid person out of a fully detached house, her childhood home, into an apartment ... knowing that every sound from behind a shared wall would induce psychosis.”

Baillie circles around her subject, occasionally honing in on a particular detail whose significance we only realise later. It gives us the sensation of eavesdropping on the sisters and the strains in their relationship. Including extracts from Christina’s journals, Baillie interrogates the very nature of memoir and the difficulty of narrating the past: “Ever since her death, I’ve been writing, erasing and rewriting this disobedient tale.” Christina’s art – “shit and piss ... excreted bodily extensions of language” – feels equally impenetrable, although Baillie loyally suggests it made her feel more “real”. Regarding their disagreement over the house, Baillie concludes: “Her desire to claim it, and my resistance to her claim – was in part a battle over whose narration was to win the day, whose telling of the past was to dominate the future.”

In attempting to understand the sister who haunts her still, and forgive herself, Baillie has produced an extraordinary account of love and rivalry between siblings, and of the destabilising effects of mental illness on one family. 

Originally published by The Tablet