Monday, 21 November 2016
My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood
I go to fetch my coat, but in the hallway I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror; the image that greeted the two officers. I gasp. My eyes are caked in thick black mascara that runs in watery spirals across my eyelids to my temples; my hair, styled into a neat chignon earlier in the evening, has collapsed and wisps of it stick to my forehead. I am still wearing the floral wrap dress, tights and cardigan I had worn to the pub and the clothes reek of nicotine and stale white wine.
I see myself as they saw me: a drunk with a sleeping pill habit. If I were in their shoes I wouldn’t believe me either.
commentary: No offence to the women pictured here, who of course do not look drunk at all – they look like Kate at the beginning of her evening out.
This is a brand new thriller, just out, a debut novel from Nuala Ellwood – thanks to Penguin for my copy.
It contains a lot of features that have cropped up in recent successful books: women with a believability problem and a drinking problem, sinister characters and very nasty villains. But Ellwood has shaken up the bag of tricks, and added some new ones. Kate, above, narrates the first two-thirds of the book: the voice then changes, and then there is a third section, just to keep the tension up…
Kate is a war reporter and this adds considerable depth to the story – Ellwood makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she has researched this carefully, and has close family members in the business. It could be tasteless to bring the horrors of Syria into a thriller, but I thought she carried it off.
My main complaint would be that the book is written in the present tense, but this seems to be a losing battle: it seems to be universal in modern thrillers. That’s despite the fact that most of my crime fan friends dislike it, some quite intensely, and you very rarely hear of anyone saying ‘I love it’ – the best you get is ‘I don’t mind it.’
But apart from that – this is a clever plot about two sisters who grew up in a very dysfunctional family. Kate got out to pursue her career: Sally had a child, got married, and is now an alcoholic. When their mother dies, Kate returns to her home town, moves briefly into her mother’s house, and starts to worry about what is going on in the house next door. But has she let the past (in England and in Syria) influence her too much? Why do she and Sally have such a bad relationship?
The elements of alcoholism and PTSD are sensitively and convincingly done, and there are some good surprises and the usual questions about unreliable narrators: of course the reader wants to shout at the two main women at various points, but I take that for granted with this kind of book…
So, a good honest read with some very edgy moments and some surprises. One question would be why it has this title: there are many aspects to the book, but the title doesn’t fit any of them.