Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review: MY SISTER'S BONES by Nuala Ellwood

Title: My Sister's Bones
Author: Nuala Ellwood
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 23 February 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

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? 

My thoughts:

We meet Kate Rafter, a successful war journalist posted to Syria, as she is being questioned by a police psychologist, and know that all is not well in her world. After having witnessed atrocities most of us cannot even fathom, she returns to her childhood home to settle her affairs after her mother’s sudden death. Having broken off contact with her alcoholic sister Sally a long time ago, she reluctantly gives in to her brother-in-law’s pleading to go and see Sally, in a last ditch effort to help her seek help for her addiction problem. But Kate is in no fit state to face up to the past of her dysfunctional family and the childhood trauma that has damaged her sister and made Kate herself flee her home for good. Suffering from severe PTSD from an incident in Syria, she still experiences terrible flashbacks and insomnia. Worst of all, she keeps seeing the figure of a young boy standing in her mother’s garden at night, calling out to her for help.  Nobody believes her that the child exists, and the neighbours are close to having a restraining order issued after Kate has knocked on their door to save the fictional child. Is Kate going crazy? Or is the past trying to catch up with her?

Whilst I was immediately drawn to the premise of the story and thought that Ellwood got her novel off to an intriguing start, there were parts where I really struggled with this book. Kate’s battle with PTSD is sensitively drawn, and it is obvious that the author has had a personal connection to the topic. I especially liked the way Kate’s two worlds collide, time and time again, as she is confronted with the vast contrast between our sheltered lives and those of the people in Syria she has come to love. Her war experiences read like the harrowing events they must have been, but also explore the human side of the Syrian crisis, through the eyes of a war reporter. With the effects of PTSD, Kate is in no fit state to deal with her own traumatic past and abuse at the hands of a violent, alcoholic father, or to try to solve her sister’s substance abuse problems. Ellwood does a good job at portraying Kate’s fraying mental state, the flashbacks haunting her, her emotional baggage from Syria, and her denial that anything is wrong with her, which makes her an unreliable narrator and gives unlimited potential to interpret the events unfolding in the novel. Unfortunately I did not feel that this potential was reached, finding the final twist much too contrived and unbelievable. I often get the impression that authors these days are trying to outdo one another by finding that “shocking twist no one will see coming” at the expense of the story. We already have all the elements of a strong story with Kate’s PTSD and family past, but Ellwood tries to pack even more into the novel, to a point where it all becomes too much to ring true. I will not give away any spoilers for those who enjoy the “shocking twist”, only to say that I didn’t – for me it was a bit too crass, when the subtle hints of Kate’s mental state could have offered so much more in the way of psychological suspense. It was like a drum roll for the big finale, which only resulted in an eye roll from me.

I was also a bit flummoxed by the sudden change in voice half way through the book (I have a preview copy only, not the final published version), when a part of the story is suddenly being told from Sally’s viewpoint. Both POVs are in the first person narrative, but there is no warning that the perspective has changed, and the style of the narrative remains the same, so it took me some time to work out what was going on. I am hoping that the publisher will address that in the final published novel.

Altogether, whist I enjoyed parts of the story, I found My Sister’s Bones to be a rather depressing read with lots of damaged, miserable characters and a mountain of issues, but without a redeeming finale that would have made my reading journey worthwhile. Unfortunately not the right book for me at this time, though I think that Ellwood has all the right ingredients to tell a good story and I look forward to reading more from her in future.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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