Sister (Rosamund Lupton, 2010)

SisterA bit of a departure for me, this, but I’ve been ill and it was the first book that fell to the ground when I flailed at the bookcase. I don’t know where I got it from. I think it was recommended as part of the Richard and Judy book club, which is a sort of low-rent version of Oprah’s book club here in the UK. It’s surprisingly good, at least for the first two-thirds. Sensitively drawn but densely layered. Unfortunately it descends into implausibility in the final stretch, and the closing twist, while ambitious, doesn’t make much sense in light of what’s gone before. But worth a read.

Anyway, that’s your lot if you’re trying to avoid spoilers. After the cut I’ll be talking about the whole thing, including that final twist.

Beatrice has to rush home to the UK from her job and fiancé in New York when she gets a call that her sister, Tess, is missing. Tess’s child was stillborn, and she was diagnosed with puerperal depression. Soon Tess is found dead in the public toilets in Hyde Park, her arms and wrists slashed. Given the diagnosis and the circumstances of her death, the police are convinced that Tess committed suicide. But Bee doesn’t believe it, and sets out to investigate what happened.

The book is structurally interesting. It’s framed as a letter from Bee to Tess, where the “present” is a discussion between Bee and Mr Wright from the CPS, as Bee recounts the circumstances which led to the arrest of Tess’s murderer. Because of this format of an interview embedded in a reminiscence, the narrative can jump between various timelines, teasing the reader with information that wouldn’t normally be available if things were followed strictly chronologically.

This is a clever format, because it allows for arcs which wouldn’t resonate strongly if they were presented in their natural order. It also allows for Lupton to present Bee as snobbish and naïve without appearing unsympathetic, because we’re given examples of how the experienced has changed her very early on in the book. Lupton handles all this jumping about deftly, and it never gets confusing. Some of the symbolism is perhaps a little too on the nose (Bee moves into Tess’s flat and starts tending her dead garden), but in general things are pitched very well: you have to work just hard enough to connect the dots that deciphering the events and characters feels rewarding but not elusive.

I was also initially impressed at the handling of science and mental illness. Tess was diagnosed with puerperal depression, a form of post-natal depression, and there’s a major subplot about a cystic fibrosis trial. Beatrice herself has been in therapy, and all of these are handled in a sensitive and even-handed way, which is a rarity in crime fiction.

Lupton also does a good job of directing reader suspicion: there’s a parade of different suspects, and for a while I couldn’t decide which of them was guilty, even suspecting very minor characters basically at random. But it is clued (although the main clue is a Murder, She Wrote special, the murderer revealing a trivial piece of information they shouldn’t have known) and there’s a clever clue about Catholicism that I kicked myself for missing.

But unfortunately it all falls apart in the last third. As it becomes certain that something is wrong with the cystic fibrosis trial, the book’s handling of science and medicine goes to pot. And the murderer turns out to have the ever-tedious Midsomer Murders Syndrome, where they were normal and competent right up until the denouement, when it turns out they were mad, MAD, MAAADDD!!! In this case, the killer is an otherwise lovely doctor who co-opted the cystic fibrosis trial to conduct his own insane human gene experiments to satisfy his IQ fetish. After spending the first two-thirds of the book talking in such a confident and nuanced way about science (albeit a little simplified), it was incredibly disappointing to see it all chucked in the bin for some cheap shocks.

Other problems: the pacing is a bit off. The non-medical suspects are well-handled, but ultimately irrelevant, which means the real murderer isn’t introduced until quite late, and the subplot about the cystic fibrosis trial has to overshadow the second half in order for Lupton to get through all the necessary material. I’d have dropped the stalker boyfriend entirely, even though he was a convincing character. Sometimes pacing has to trump good material.

Tess’s character becomes less and less believable the more we hear about her, to the point of caricature. She’s a free-spirit artist who’s immensely talented but undiscovered. Everyone loves her, and thousands of friends turn up to meet Bee when she organises a meeting in a local coffee shop to try and get information. I appreciate that it’s an elegy from Bee to her sister, but Tess is just too perfect. Like a bad CV, her character flaws are nauseous things like “loving people too much”.

The false solution which is supposed to lull the reader into a false sense of security is weak. It’s a good idea, and it comes at exactly the right point in the narrative, but it’s too full of holes. I just don’t believe that Bee would have been taken in by it for an instant. But this is complicated by the fact that the actual solution is also implausible, so perhaps we’re supposed to think this is a world where doctors are all hyper-competent megalomaniacs, but medical institutions as a whole are completely incompetent. While it’s fine to ask readers to suspend disbelief in this way, you can’t do it after the fact. The whole first three-quarters of the book portrays doctors as hard-working but flawed individuals, trying their best in an over-stretched and underfunded system. To ask the reader to suddenly chuck all that away in favour of a brand new interpretation that contradicts the tone of what’s gone before but is necessary to make all the twists work is overstepping things.

The final twist is also awkward. It turns out in the final chapter that the framing device of the CPS interviews is a lie. Bee is actually narrating the story left for dead by the murderer in the same toilet block Tess was murdered in. She invented Mr Wright and all those parts of the story to try to keep calm. That’s… interesting, and it’s exciting while you’re reading it, but it doesn’t really work in retrospect. Lupton attempts to clue Bee’s deception by having bits of reality seep into the CPS scenes as the novel goes on. She starts blacking out and hallucinating when talking to Wright, and shares a pizza with the investigating police officer in a parody of Mary Sue romantic fiction, where he suddenly comes round to Bee’s point of view and praises her for being so intelligent and resourceful. That’s not a bad clue, and it was actually the point where I tumbled to what was going on, so in that sense it was very successful, but I don’t think unreliable narrators should be selectively unreliable. This kind of deception isn’t inherently flawed (I was reminded a little of The Athenian Murders), but it’s very hard to pull off and not make it feel like a twist for the sake of being twisty. It’s already a stretch to believe that the book is a letter from Bee to her dead sister, to then have to believe that it’s all an elaborate mental defence under traumatic conditions, one which conveniently falters in all the right places to be suspenseful, is pushing suspension of disbelief past breaking point. I just don’t buy the idea of nested self-deception. It’s too complex to be a believable response to Bee’s situation, especially the very particular way in which the layers bleed into each other.

Still, it’s a confident and ambitious first novel, and I’d be interested to see what Lupton does in her next.

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