Full disclosure – I went into this novel with my expectations in check. That’s not because I had reservations about the writer’s capabilities but only because ever since Gone Girl became an instant phenomena, there has been an influx of psychological thrillers and among them, only a handful have been truly exceptional. Most of the recent additions to this genre have run-of-the-mill writing that employs hackneyed tropes, worn out plot twists and shallow characterization. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by how completely gripping Nuala Ellwood’s My Sister’s Bones was from the get-go. For me a quality psychological thriller is one which is consistently confounding and where the author is always one step ahead of the reader. My Sister’s Bones delivered on both counts.
The book begins with Kate’s interrogation, while she is being detained at Herne Bay Police Station. The narration then flits back and forth to tell us about the events that led to her arrest. The book is divided into three parts – with the first part narrated by Kate, a war correspondent who has just returned after a prolonged assignment in Aleppo, one of the most severely military-affected war zones of the world at the moment. She has come back to Herne Bay to deal with her deceased mother’s affairs, and is still reeling from the harrowing terrors of Syria, especially since experiencing a deeply affecting casualty concerning a little Syrian boy which is slowly unraveled in the first part of the book.
“She asked me about nightmares but where do I start? Do I tell her how I’ve stood in shallow graves and felt my feet sinking into the earth, my toes drenched in body fluids? Do I tell her about those endless black nights when I have woken up begging for noise, for chatter, for anything but the incessant silence of the dead? No, because if I do I will only confirm her suspicions. I have to stay focused and stay one step ahead of her or it’s all over.”
Not only does Kate have to contend with recurring nightmares and frequent hallucinations related to the traumatizing episodes she saw in Syria, she also has to deal with her alcoholic sister, Sally. Sally and Kate have a contentious relationship that only partly has to do with Sally’s perpetually inebriated state.
Sally’s character comes off as the more unsympathetic of the two; she has always been a passive spectator, more concerned with maintaining peace than speaking out for what’s right. She has a difficult relationship with almost everyone around her – her husband, Paul, Kate, their mother and her teenage daughter, Hannah.
Their family has had more than their share of tragedies. When they were little, they lost their little brother to a tragic drowning while out on a boat. Their father spent the rest of his life trying to find some solace at the bottom of a glass. He takes out his grief by knocking his family around, particularly their submissive mother, who never defends herself. The two girls grow up experiencing constant domestic abuse in their family and cope with it in their own ways. Kate, who always stood up for her mother, would spend her life trying to defend victims and helping other people in her profession. Sally, on the other hand, has a more evasive approach and prefers to look the other way.
As someone who studies psychology, I’m always a bit miffed with how many times writers use mental illnesses as a cop out of their inexplicable plot twists. Here, however, Nuala deftly brings attention to the consequences of trauma and childhood abuse. She humanly portrays what posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) actually looks like. Even the depiction of Sally’s inebriation is delicately handled and never overdone.
The book interestingly highlights how most people view the hectic jobs of war correspondents and how markedly different their priorities are. Kate is often pestered by people around her when they enquire why she can’t do something normal like an ordinary 9 to 5 job – why does she have to go from one hellhole to another or the clichéd, “Let them fight their own battles”. After one such comment, Kate ponders:
“That’s all that matters to most people – getting a good night’s sleep. I imagine Paul in Homs or Aleppo, snoring his head off while all around him people fight to stay alive.”
The book briefly but sensitively portrays the horrors that natives have to face in such conflict zones. Kate’s character is not only afflicted with survivor’s guilt but also disorientation as she finds it difficult to acclimate to the peaceful town life after coming back from intense assignments. The stark disparity between her two lives is poignantly expressed; she witnesses how children in Aleppo can’t play football outside for fear of being seen, while back home she has to attend her niece’s birthday party replete with the usual frivolities.
The plot is fast-paced, backed by three-dimensional characters. I can’t reveal much about how the plot unfolds, but this is a remarkably assured debut thriller which will keep you turning pages until you get to the very end. Nuala shrewdly draws attention to important issues like human trafficking, substance abuse, PTSD and domestic abuse, and she seamlessly weaves these themes into her plotline. Besides being a brisk psychological thriller, My Sister’s Bones is also a sombre exploration of familial bonds, the nature of memory and how transformative our early childhood experiences, both good and bad, can be.