Kate Rafter is a successful war reporter. She’s the strong one. The one who escaped Herne Bay and the memories it holds. Her sister Sally didn’t. Instead, she drinks.
But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.
What secret has Kate stumbled upon?
And is she strong enough to uncover the truth . . . and make it out alive?
As much as I seek to actively avoid thrillers with the merest whiff of domestic noir about them, I was intrigued to read My Sister’s Bones, a debut psychological thriller by Nuala Ellwood with its blend of emotional domesticity combined with more global concerns. Effectively marrying the usual tropes of domestic noir and familial conflict, with more salient humanitarian issues, Ellwood has produced a thriller that is a curious blend of the intensely satisfying and the slightly frustrating…
The absolute lynchpin for my enjoyment of this book was Kate’s story, a seasoned war reporter who on her return from war-torn Aleppo in Syria, is battling the twin demons of PTSD and personal emotional stress caused by the death of her mother, and the non-connectedness to her sister Sally who is in the grip of alcoholism, and suffering personal distress at the disappearance of her daughter, Hannah. Reflecting my enjoyment of other thrillers such as Matthew Frank’s If I Should Die, and Kate Medina’s Fire Damage, which also explored the realm of PTSD, I found Ellwood’s portrayal of Kate, so emotionally affected by her horrific experiences in Syria, utterly authentic, bolstered no doubt by the author’s own familial links to the world of war reporting. Her confusion, anger and twisted sense of self worth and guilt was heart-breaking and emotional throughout, really tapping into the reader’s empathy, and depicting perfectly one woman’s personal experience of war. I also admired the clear-headed, objective portrayal of the Syrian conflict exhibited by the author, and its balanced and unflinching tone when describing the danger and human devastation that Kate experiences holed up in this war torn city. I liked the way that we as readers are drawn in and out of states of mistrust towards Kate, due to the symptoms of her stress, constantly questioning her veracity as a reliable narrator, and a credible witness to what she believes is happening in the house next door. Her story and actions totally carries the thrust of the book, and without giving anything away I was a little worried that her story had been too swiftly curtailed to carry my interest to the end.
More frustrating for me, was the close to home aspect of the story, where Kate finds herself immersed in the suspicious goings-on of her next door neighbour, and the grand reveal of how this relates to the travails of her alienated sister, Sally. Again, I think Ellwood, is spot on with the characterisation of Sally, fighting a battle with alcoholism, and the conflicting states of mind and self-awareness that this terrible addiction causes to those in its grip. Her experience was never less than utterly believable and affecting. However, I did find the central plot of the book a little weak, and far-fetched to totally draw me in, and the denouement was just a tad too fanciful to entirely convince this reader. Such is the strength of Ellwood’s writing in terms of human experience, that I wondered with the blips in the central plotting, if crime fiction was the right avenue to go down. With her undeniable knack for portraying the weaknesses and strengths of her female characters, I would happily have read this a contemporary fiction novel examining the condition of war and its impact on human relationships, drawing on the issues of PTSD, familial isolation and alcohol addiction.
So, all in all, a bit of a mixed bag for this reader, who didn’t really appreciate the ‘crime’ aspect of the book so much, but with exhibiting such strong characterisation in the protagonists of Kate and Sally themselves, had enough to keep me reading on. Recommended.
(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)