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Tale of sisterhood spans decades

Brotherly relationships we see rendered, in fiction, all the time, it sometimes seems.

Compelling and vividly realized sisterhoods, on the other hand, can be more rare in the pages of literary novels -- and perhaps more difficult to pin down, for writers.

Which is one of several reasons why Nancy Jensen's new novel, "The Sisters," is worth celebrating.

Jensen, a debut novelist who lives in Kentucky and teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University, gives us a story that flies in the face of what the publishing world often thinks readers will want to engage in.

In other words: Her novel is historical and spans decades; it jumps around among narrators and points of view, giving the reins of the story to various women who share ties of blood and friendship; and it doesn't offer happy endings to one and all.

No, "The Sisters" doesn't fit neatly into the tidy compartments we typically see literary fiction for women slotted into.

And yet, this novel is well-written, compelling and readable. We don't get lost among multiple story lines and eras (give the American reader credit for a little good sense, yes?) but rather revel in the ways that periods can reflect and echo each other, and multiple generations of the same family tree repeat and overlap.

Central protagonists in the novel are Mabel and Bertie Fischer. In 1927, in the small Kentucky town where they live, the Fischer sisters undergo two separate, yet related, torments. Mabel is abused by someone close to her; Bertie misunderstands completely, and thinks herself the one betrayed.

Instead of finding freedom together, one sister escapes -- and one stays behind.

Over the ensuing decades, as the fates of Mabel and Bertie and their children and grandchildren unfold, we see the tragedy of that original act of escape and abandonment refracted through the experiences of these strong, long-suffering women and the characters around them.

Mabel is particularly haunting. Moving past her grave early difficulties, she changes her life by saving a man who bears the psychological scars of war -- and then becomes a prize-winning photographer who specializes in capturing the images of men heading off to, and returning home from, the field of battle.

Brilliant, moving, impossible. A little like sisters. A little like all of us.

Charity Vogel is a Buffalo News reporter and manager of The News Book Club.

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The Sisters

By Nancy Jensen

St. Martin's Press

322 pages, $25