A friend recently popped 'Sister', by Rosamund Lupton, into an envelope and sent it my way. It's from the crime/thriller genre, not my usual choice for bedtime reading, but it came with a good recommendation from a good friend and that is hard to resist.
Firstly, let me assure you that I will not reveal anything in this review that will spoil the book for you. It contains a great many surprises and twists, which I love in a novel, so I will confine myself to discussing the style and theme used by Lupton in this, her first novel.
It is, simply put, a story about a 20 something, London girl, called Beatrice, living in New York, who gets a phone call to tell her that her younger sister, Tess, is missing. She leaves her job, apartment and fiancé to go and find her sister. During the course of the book, sensible Beatrice, not unlike Elinor in Jane Austen's classic 'sisters' novel,'Sense and Sensibility', becomes more and more like her missing sister Tess - who is very like Austen's Marianne, being impulsive and carefree. They begin to merge into the one character. The narrator herself refers to it as the 'mirror idea'. Beatrice moves into her sister's apartment, wears her clothes, takes over her sisters old job and old friends and begins to look more and more like her. This clever swapping of identities is central to the story, though not in any way that the reader might expect - but you will have to read the book yourself to find out more!
On returning to London, Beatrice finally has to come to terms with the death of her younger brother, Leo who, many years before, died from childhood Cystic Fibrosis. Although Beatrice and Tess have remained close, their parents' relationship did not survive Leo's death and so the survival of family relationships is at the center of the text. The book also deals with genetics, specifically the ethical issues surrounding gene therapy and gene replacement. It considers the impact of big business on medical research and as such it reminded me of the film, 'A Constant Gardiner', whose central character 'Tessa' is similarly named. The story is also reminiscent of that movie in that the structure is not in chronological order and is told in a series of flashbacks, with time itself becoming an interesting theme - how it can grow and shorten depending on our perception at different moments of fear and stress.
Although the cover, of my edition at least, is black and white with a smattering of Red, the colour that I would mostly associate with the book is actually yellow. It is not just the yellow and black of the police tape demarcating a crime scene; it is much less sinister than that. It begins and just about ends with the scent of lemons, and references to yellow daffodils punctuate the story: Amias puts daffodil bulbs outside Tessa's flat and later in the story we watch them bloom; Mrs Crush Secretary presents them to a oblivious Mr Wright as a sign of her undying love; and Tess tells her sister Beatrice that it is the Vitamin A in Daffodils that make them yellow, so it is the yellow in daffodils that stops children from going blind.
But daffodils are not the only floral reference in the text. We find flowers on display on the steps outside Tess's flat; placed outside the public toilets; the roses planted in Tess's garden and beside Leo's grave. When Beatrice first meets Simon is he is carrying a big bunch of flowers and both Tess and her mother find great comfort in gardening when they are grieving for Leo. I think that the reason for the many references to flowers is that the writer is, firstly, trying to introduce some colour into the text, which in a snow-covered London, is quite bleak and, secondly, that yellow is traditionally associated with madness, which is a key theme in the novel.
The text is equally dotted with many literary references: Austen, Donne, Coleridge, Christie, Shakespeare, Auden, Lewis, Barrie (Peter Pan), Hawthorne, to name but a few. Lupton's main character Beatrice, like the author herself, has studied English Literature at Cambridge, and it shows. It can seem sometimes a little contrived to suddenly seg-way into an explanation of the Music of the Spheres, as described by the Seventeenth Century poets, but isn't that how the mind works in reality? Doesn't King Lear come to mind whenever we are contemplating what it must be like to live with mental illness? Well that is how the narrator's mind works in this novel. I suspect Lupton uses the technique to add weight to her text and give depth to her main character.
This is not a predictable novel. It's a page-turner that will keep you up later that you planned. Here is my favourite line from the book - I thought you might like it too...
'... your mind can play all sorts of tricks... There's no monster in the wardrobe. But you and I know he's real'. Devilish good!
I'd recommend this book to my friends, as a good, escapist-read, and am thankful to one such friend who recommended it to me.
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