Posted on February 27, 2017
My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood
Nuala Ellwood received recognition on the list of The Guardian’s ‘new faces of fiction 2017′ with her debut novel My Sister’s Bones, published by Penguin on 9th February.
The story begins with Kate Rafter, a war correspondent, undergoing psychological analysis at a police station in Herne Bay, Kent. She has recently returned to her childhood home, from a very traumatic period in Syria, to deal with the estate of her deceased mother.
The first few pages give a clear indication of Kate’s mental fragility due to the horrendous events she has experienced while reporting from various war zones. During the interview with the doctor she knows that she “mustn’t tell her about the voices” but has difficulty focusing and responding to the questions due to their intrusion.
“as I speak, they’re back, fading in and out like a radio between frequencies. The old woman wailing; the young father running through the streets holding the blasted body of his baby girl in his arms. My old faithfuls, the ones that return to me whenever I am under stress”
While the doctor is writing, determining whether Kate should be held under the Mental Health Act, Kate knows that “every word I say here can be used against me”.
The story then moves to one week earlier with the narration flitting back and forth between Kate’s assessment at Herne Bay Police Station and the events leading up to her arrest.
The family home in Herne Bay where Kate spent her childhood with her parents and sister Sally holds its own painful memories of an abusive and alcoholic father and the death of her younger brother. Kate was the stronger of the two girls and always stood up to their father in an attempt to protect their mother from the beatings, while Sally would try to please her father. This led to a rift between Kate and Sally, causing a fractured relationship in adult life.
Kate became a journalist, reporting from some of the most dangerous war-torn countries because she wanted the world to know of the intense suffering endured by the people – no doubt, to some extent, influenced by her own disturbing childhood – whereas her sister Sally sought consolation in alcohol, like her father had after the death of his young son.
My Sister’s Bones is a superb psychological thriller which deals with the tough subjects of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder and the long term effects of growing up in an abusive environment. Nuala Ellwood has sensitively combined these difficult topics with excellent plotting to produce a brilliant and exciting novel. Very well written, it conveys the issues surrounding mental illness without trivialising it to enhance the story. It incorporates the heart of suffering without slowing down the fast pace required for a good psychological thriller.
As well as having almost as many twists and turns as a DNA double helix there are some subtle messages conveyed in My Sister’s Bones. One is that someone suffering with mental illness should not be casually dismissed as a ‘mad person’ when they voice opinions that may seem illogical or odd, such as when Kate claims to see a little boy sitting in a flower bed in the garden. Another is to resist making judgements as it is not always possible to fully understand what a person has experienced to make them what they are today. Kate was known as the intrepid journalist, brave and strong, standing up for victims whereas Sally commanded less respect due to her decline into alcoholism and is seen as weak. Both were exposed to violence in their childhood and both saw these experiences differently.
The story also highlights the regrets that often accompany tragedy: Wishing you had listened more carefully; wishing you had not judged so quickly; wishing you had made more effort instead of harbouring resentment.
Nuala Ellwood definitely deserves to be on The Guardian’s list of authors to look out for in the future. My Sister’s Bones is a well crafted, compelling thriller with a fast moving plot and authentic characterisation.
A highly recommended five star read.
You can follow Nuala Ellwood on Twiiter: @NualaWrites