To celebrate WOM4N, we asked several of our authors and staff to share their favourite female characters from the 4th Estate bookshelves. Here, Tom Killingbeck explains why he is still haunted by’ The Virgin Suicides’ Cecilia Lisbon…
On the first page of Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, thirteen-year-old Cecilia Lisbon tries to kill herself in the bath, ‘slitting her wrists like a Stoic’. In one short, shocking paragraph, Eugenides introduces a character who has remained indelibly etched on my mind ever since I read the novel as a teenager, like initials on the bark of a tree.
The five Lisbon sisters, of which Cecilia is the youngest, are mythologised as a single entity by the neighbourhood boys who narrate the novel. All are depicted in the same lyrical prose, equal parts nostalgic and voyeuristic: ‘they were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness.’ But only two of the doomed sisters linger in my memory: Lux, with her alliterative appellation and her relationship with Trip Fontaine (‘No boy was ever so cool and aloof’) and Cecilia, who, if The Virgin Suicides is a puzzle, is almost certainly the key.
Cecilia is the first to flirt with death, the first to pull on the thread that unravels the whole sorority. Without her, I’m certain there would be no suicides, and subsequently, no novel. But Cecilia never lets the narrators close – she only offers them, and us, a mirage of teenage ephemera. We enter her bedroom full of tarot cards and amethysts, we read her diary, its ‘precocious prose’ taking in government conspiracies and ecological meltdown, but these personal places only lead us in circles. Her poetry is similarly enigmatic, at once childish and oddly profound:
The trees like lungs filling with air
My sister, the mean one, pulling my hair
Cecilia is a mass of contradictions: wise and innocent, dreamy and lucid, quotidian and unknowable, and yet, somehow, Eugenides makes her wholly, believably, human. Why is she so compelling yet mysterious to me? Cecilia has the answer herself. As she says to the doctor after her initial suicide attempt, ‘Obviously … you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’
One more thing: when I first thought of writing about Cecelia for this feature, I’d remembered her as a central presence throughout the novel. In fact, she doesn’t make it past Chapter Two. In those 40-odd pages, she leaves quite an impression.
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