My Sister’s Bones by Nuala Ellwood

“She is safe now. Free from her demons. Her final resting place is still and tranquil, a little watery pocket of calm…”

Kate Rafter, an international war reporter, returns home after her mother’s death. For her, a return to her hometown is a return to the horrors of her childhood – where memories of her abusive alcoholic father linger, and her spiteful, estranged sister still resides.

Recently back from Syria, and scarred from the atrocities she has witnessed, Kate is suffering from vivid hallucinations and PTSD. Staying in her old family home, the ghosts of the past rear their ugly heads at every turn – the carpet soaked with decades of her mother’s blood, the flowerbed where Kate lay after being locked outside as a punishment… But no matter whether sleeping or awake, Kate can’t escape the ghosts – the people she could have saved. Here; her mother, in Syria; a young boy.

Plagued with guilt, fear and anxiety, she begins to be convinced that there is a little boy living in the house next door – she sees him standing in the garden, hears his laughter and cries. But the inhabitant next door, an Iraqi refugee, vehemently denies that she has a child, and calls the police on Kate on the grounds of trespass.

No-one will believe her; not the police, nor her sister, Sally, who has become an abusive alcoholic herself. Feeling desperate and helpless, with a restraining order against her, Kate returns to her work in Syria. But before she goes, she finds an old dictaphone of her mother’s, and presses play on the tape. Maybe Kate wasn’t so wrong about the little boy next door after all…

‘My Sister’s Bones’ was a quick read; fast-paced, easily devourable in a couple of days. The writing was atmospheric, and Ellwood does a good job of creating tension. There are some truly hateful characters, but there is some nuance explored which renders them a bit more three-dimensional and less cliched. However, on the whole, this psychological thriller fell flat for me.

There is a sense of too many themes being tackled in the space of one, (rather short), novel. Alcoholism, abuse, miscarriage, child death, war, trafficking, rape… these are huge topics, and it’s not possible to do them justice in a book like this. As a result, the feeling I came way with after reading was that it was all a bit shallow. It only scratches the surface.

The ending – whilst satisfying – felt rushed, as endings of this genre so often do. I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t feel invested in the characters – so by the time it came to the ‘big reveal’, I couldn’t find it in myself to feel that emotional about what was happening. I’m not saying the twist wasn’t clever, and I liked the tying up of loose ends, but it didn’t have much of an impact. It could have done with less exposition, and more time devoted to exploring the ending and its ramifications.

Whilst the interior monologues were strong, I found the dialogue between characters to be quite weak; it felt somewhat inauthentic and clichéd at times – I wasn’t sure I believed what was happening on the page.

However, I did like the way that Ellwood tied in current affairs with Kate being a war reporter in Syria. The strengths of the book lie in Kate’s experience of the war, capturing the sheer horror of the conflict and how it is the innocent who suffer the greatest. It was a brave subject to tackle, and I felt that Kate’s PTSD was well-researched and executed. For me, this was the strongest element of the book.

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