When I Had a Little Sister
When I had a Little Sister tells a story of sisters and sacrifice, grief and reclamation, and of the need to speak the unspeakable.
When did she decide to die? Was it before midnight on Friday the 6th, because she couldn’t face another night or was it before dawn on Saturday the 7th because she couldn’t face another day?
Did she think about us? Did she think about her dog, Ted, or her cat, Puss, sleeping on Grandma Mary’s old sofa in the conservatory and who would be waiting for her to feed them in the morning? What about her horses in the stable? Did she think about them? Did she imagine Dad finding her? It would have to be Dad, after all. It couldn’t be anyone else.
Did she know what she was doing?
On a cold December day in 2013 Catherine Simpson received the phone call she had feared for years. Her little sister Tricia had been found dead in the farmhouse where she, Catherine and their sister Elizabeth were born – and where their family had lived for generations.
Tricia was 46 and had been stalked by depression all her life. Yet mental illness was a taboo subject within the family and although love was never lacking, there was a silence at its heart.
After Tricia died, Catherine found she had kept a lifetime of diaries. The words in them took her back to a past they had shared, but experienced so differently, and offered a thread to help explore the labyrinth of her sister’s suicide.
‘This is not a depressing read, but rather a rich family history that seeks to find a way to break the silence and address the unspoken. Simpson is a precise and skilled writer, a good noticer… This memoir about Tricia, but also about a family going from five to four to three, about the history of a Lancashire farm, is a considerable achievement.’
Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Times
‘Catherine’s book, When I Had a Little Sister, is an outpouring of emotions and vivid recollections, as she tries to piece together why her sister died.’
Helen Bushby, BBC News
‘If you loved Tara Westover’s Educated, get yourself a copy of When I Had A Little Sister by Catherine Simpson as soon as humanly possible. This beautifully understated memoir begins with a gut-wrenching tragedy… Wrestling with her grief, Simpson goes back through her sister’s journals – and her own memories – to try to make sense of the suicide. The result is a startling, elegiac portrait of farming life in modern Britain.
Hayley Maitland, Vogue
‘Insightful. Beautifully written, this really resonated with me.’
Isabel Costello, The Literary Sofa
‘Brave and elegiac.’
The Bookseller, Editor’s Choice
‘Superb…Simpson candidly exposes the gulf between Tricia’s behaviour and her previously unsuspected interior life… Tricia’s heart-rending biography is interwoven with welcome portraits of Simpson’s bonkers ancestors, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny… The joy of the book lies in Simpson’s vivid evocation of the sisters’ wild childhood, before Tricia became so tragically unwell and the farm faced overwhelming financial difficulties. There are warming tales of delivering fresh milk to neighbours on horseback, but the brutalities of agricultural life are laid bare, too: when a nest of baby rats is discovered, a farmworker stamps on their small pink bodies with hobnail boots, without a thought for whether the children witnessing it should be spared the massacre.’
Leaf Arbuthnot, The Sunday Times
‘Riveting…heart-rending reading… In a way, the real memorial for Tricia is the compassionate and beadily observed account of the Lancashire landscape. Simpson is unafraid to plait the pastoral with the darker aspects of country life…That honesty underwrites what should be an enduring addition to writing about both mental illness and rural England.’
Richard Benson, The Observer
‘This memoir is about a lost sister, but also things that touch us all: the weight of love, loss and guilt; families and their means of survival; how possessions define a life and where they scatter after death. Simpson’s writing – unsentimental, witty at times, yet precisely moving – fillets the little details that reveal the profundity and bravery her sister’s weakening struggle with mental illness: even, near the end, the way Tricia painstaking dressed up in elegant outfits to attend the local church. I found this book gripping and heart-wrenching. It sticks with me still.’
Jenny McCartney, Mail on Sunday
‘an unflinching and honest account …The book is humorous and heart-wrenching in turns and a linguistic feat from someone who counts herself as part of a Lancashire farming family ‘who never spoke’…As Catherine says, the good memories they have of Tricia are the only happy things that remain. … Read it for that – and also for the laughs (yes, there are plenty of laughs), the honesty and the way it hopes to help open dialogues in families that don’t know how to talk to each other. ‘
Lynsey May, The List
‘Catherine Simpson’s memoir of her sister Tricia’s suicide mixes the coolness of her journalistic training with the subjective pain of loss in dreadful circumstances. But something else is on these pages: frustration and anger – with Tricia, with herself and with other relatives – that if only the family tradition of silence and the suppression of feelings had been challenged earlier things might have been different. In analysing the inherited values and habits of a lifetime, Simpson breaks the silence and liberates herself’
James Robertson, author of And the Land Lay Still
‘When I Had a Little Sister, Catherine Simpson’s second book, carries a subtitle – “The Story of a Farming Family who Never Spoke.” Don’t be fooled. This book’s secret weapon – alongside the strength and power of its story – is the remarkable voice that fires from the page to the heart with no hesitation at all. Just Wonderful. ’
Janice Galloway, author of The Trick is to Keep Breathing
‘Catherine Simpson’s memoir of her younger sister’s suicide is nothing less than an excavation of her family archaeology: a bold attempt to answer the question of how we become the people we are. Simpson is brilliant on the memories evoked by the accumulated junk left behind by the dead; she’s brilliant on the weird dynamics of family relationships; but most of all she brilliant at directing her clear-eyed gaze at the stuff we often prefer to turn away from. There are moments here of heart-stopping poignancy and unbearable sadness, but it is never maudlin or sentimental. Simpson is too good a writer for that, and it is her restraint and phlegmatic humour which lend the book its tremendous power. A deeply engaging, courageous and human work.’
Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project