"My Sister's Bones" Nuala Ellwood
Wow, wow and wow. This is one of those books which makes you miss your stop on the train, burn the dinner, forget to put the kids to bed and keeps you reading until way too late into the night. And then, when you finish the last sentence it makes you wake up your husband and say, "Oh my word, that was amazing," because you just have to tell someone how incredible it is!
I literally could not put this book down and towards the end was reading so rapidly my whole body was as tense as the action on the page.
Kate Rafter is a high-flying war reporter. She's the strong one. The one who escaped their father. Her younger sister Sally didn't. Instead, she drinks.
But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.
At first Kate tells herself it's just a nightmare. But then she hears it again. And this time she knows she's not imagining it.
What secret is lurking in the old family home?
And is she strong enough to uncover it...and make it out alive?
This book gripped me from the beginning. With lots of clues, half suggestions, memories and leading statement, the reader is working hard from the beginning to try and solve the puzzle of Kate's life and her deep secrets. I was immediately intrigued by her character and the sense of tragedy and guilt that seems to overwhelm her. Ellwood doesn't hold back with hooks, cliffhangers and questions:
"Of the two of us, how is it possible that I am the one who survived?"
Further mystery surrounding the relationship between herself and her seemingly estranged family hints at more dysfunction and even the physical description of her mother's house immediately creates tension and atmosphere akin to a gothic horror story.
"Light was not to be trusted. It revealed too much. And so my mother had installed low-wattage bulbs throughout the house and retreated into the shadows."
I loved this sense of anxiety, fear, unhappiness, lack of trust and implication of threat created through the description, observations and detail of setting, Kate and the other characters.
"......watching him as he skitters about the kitchen like a large confused bird....."
"My miserable childhood is embedded in the wood, in the springs of the mattress, in the blue velvet headboard ....."
Kate is clearly disturbed and haunted. She hears voices and I loved the way Ellwood captured this in her description:
"But as I speak they're back, fading in and out like a radio between frequencies."
The first half of the story is told through the narrative of Kate, interjected with memories of the past - from her childhood as well as her professional life, present day and an interview currently taking place at Herne Bay Police Station - an interview which lasts over several days. The increasing number of hours of this interview and the length of time she has been held in custody begin to build up a sense that possibly Kate is an unreliable narrator, that if the police are detaining her for so long she must be of some danger to someone - or herself. Equally she doesn't even seem to trust herself.
"I have to stop letting my mind wander; I have to be alert, careful. Every word I say here can be used against me."
The reader has to keep up with changes in the chronology and the mixing up of the plot line about Kate's childhood, her experiences in Syria and her present day struggles with the loss of her mother and the strange goings on in the house. It sounds confusing, but it really is not difficult to keep up with Ellwood's fluent prose.
I thought Kate was a fantastic character. I thought the combination of a woman who has been working in Syria dealing with traumatic encounters that have affected her so profoundly, a woman mourning the death of her mother and estranged from her sister, a woman whose family suffered grief and pain throughout her childhood, all came together to create a complex psychological profile that made her completely captivating. An ambitious creation, but one that Ellwood pulls off brilliantly. I could not work out whether to trust or rely on Kate, whether she was reimagining her past, filtering the memories she shared with the reader, or whether she was honest and innocent. But I was well and truly invested in her story and as desperate as her to unravel all the threads that were knitting themselves in to a headache of confusion and suspense.
I was also unsure whether this was going to be a complex psychological thriller, a ghost story or a supernatural tale. There were some brilliant images and moments when Kate 'sees' things but we don't know whether it is real, an illusion, a memory or a drug induced hallucination.
"How can a memory lie dormant like that for so many years then spring forth unbidden?"
I loved the reference to her mother's dictaphone, the appearance of a marble and a further few random objects that are connected with her past which helped create this sense something more ethereal taking place.
To exaggerate this sense of something more unnatural or eerie at work, Kate and her sister's husband visit the graveyard. I really liked Ellwood's comments as Kate scanned the headstones as she wandered through them:
"......Past Rita Mathers who has been 'sleeping peacefully since 1987' and Jim Carter who had been 'one more angel in Heaven' for the last thirty years...."
The references to "bones" is used to create an underlying sense of intrigue, suspense and at times terror. There are lost bones, found bones, bones of your body, loving down to the bones, feeling emotions down to the bones, looking at the bones of a person and perhaps most importantly:
"but they loved the bones of each other really."
And the reference to bones also adds to the general metaphor throughout the novel of people being lost, found, disappearing, being buried within themselves and stripped of everything they thought they knew.
The mental health of our characters is further questioned through the character of Sally as we suddenly see the story through her eyes in a stunning midway twist. Sally was a teenage mum, now an alcoholic and her teenage daughter is missing. She is a self destructive, negative person who we have initially been led to distrust and dislike. Now we begin to learn more about her, her past, her secrets and her burdens. Her alcoholism is captured with bleak realism.
"My eyes are bloodshot and it's been days since I last washed. My hair is limp and greasy; my skin a sickly yellow."
"I have no idea what time of day it is or what day, all I can see in front of me is a bottle of cold white wine and all I can feel, as I cross the road that leads to the shops, is the absence of it in my throat."
I can't say anymore without revealing spoilers or giving too much away. But for the last 30% of this novel I was clinging to the edges of my kindle, my shoulders aching with tension and excitement as I literally could not read fast enough. Echoes of "Room", "The Collector" and Susan Hill raced through my mind. Ellwood's use of literary devices, a compelling storyline and the drama of incorporating such an emotive and contemporary political topic such as Syria made this one of the most tense and climatic novels I have read in a while. Her themes of family, love, loss and guilt are explored with such rawness it is impossible not to become completely engrossed in this powerful psychological thriller.
5/5 stars. Without a doubt. Highly recommended. Read it!
My thanks to NetGalley for approving me for an ARC of this novel.
"My Sister's Bones" is available from Penguin from 1st November and in hardback from 9th Feb 2017.
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