Monday, 21 November 2016

My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

 
published 2016
 
 
My Sister's Bones 2My Sister's Bones
 


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.














12 comments:

  1. I'll join the chorus against present tense, Moira. But, as you say, that's what people are doing. I've been wondering what this one's like, and have heard some good things about it. Certainly it sounds as though there are lots of moments of well-written tension. And I give credit to an author who can discuss difficult subjects in a realistic, but sensitive, way. Glad you found things to like here.

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    1. Yes, I do wish some publisher, editor or author would explain who it is the present tense is for. But that said, this was an enjoyable read.

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  2. I really don't like present tense either. I tend to find it a rather facile way of writing, although I'm sure it can be done very well. But it's one of those things where the tiniest wobble means that you suddenly notice the narrator doing it and suddenly you're reading a book, rather than lost in a story. It just makes you weirdly conscious that you're not in the story, so it's a tricky writing style to pull off.

    I imagine it would be like watching films entirely told through Google Glass....

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    1. Yes - the funny thing is, I think the idea is that it pulls you in, but it has the opposite effect on so many of us, we find it rather distancing.

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  3. I do so agree about the present tense (though I have used it in a short story - somehow that seemed OK) and also about poor titles. This one actually put me off when I saw it on Amazon.

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    1. I very much agree: there could be good artistic reasons for a short story, and it's not too long to live with for the reader. But the universality of it today is a mystery isn't it?

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  4. Well you know what I think of present tense... puts me off, although I can think of one trilogy where I did not notice it. The description of the book sounds interesting, but I usually don't read anything that new unless there is a compelling reason, so maybe someday. I do like to read about dysfunctional families.

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    1. Well this one is truly dysfunctional! But I think you are taking the right line on it for you.

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  5. The present tense is rampant in YA, too. Female first-person narrator in present tense probably outnumbers any other voice in current YA.
    I, too, dislike it, but it has one thing going for it: it’s a measure of a brilliant book when you stop noticing it early on because you’ve been drawn into the story.

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    1. That is a good point, and it does happen...

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  6. Moira, my mind automatically shuts off when confronted with present tense. It's like you're right-handed and suddenly you're forced to write with your left. I have got to try reading it once.

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    1. That's an interesting and telling metaphor Prashant! But now I WANT you to confront it, to find out what you make of it...

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