If a book is all about happy families, a picture of an ideal bond between siblings is all well and good. Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March in Little Women or the Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, for example; the Radlett girls in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, or Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in that beloved children’s classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
When it comes to stories that set out to chill and thrill, however, nothing can beat a toxic sibling relationship. From Cain and Abel, through Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, sibling rivalry is a dynamic that’s fuelled stories since people have been writing them. But it looks like 2017 is the year that noir writers embrace the sibling thriller en masse, with sisters taking centre stage. A whole host of forthcoming thrillers take a sibling relationship as their central theme. Even Paula Hawkins, of The Girl on the Train fame, is getting in on the act; her eagerly anticipated second novel, Into the Water (May 2017), features a woman trying to reconcile shared events in her past following her sister’s mysterious and sudden death.
In the last few years the noir market has been dominated by the marriage thriller – remember Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep? It’s worth admiring how the best examples of this genre exploit the presumed sanctity and safety of the marital union, transforming the familiar and benign domestic environment into a haunted house full of secrets and menace. However different each set-up, each of these stories hinges on the idea that you don’t know your partner as well as you think you do. It’s not rocket science, but it is highly effective. The sibling thriller, by comparison, offers a much broader canvas to explore.
A sibling, perhaps even more than a marriage partner, should be someone you trust implicitly
Firstly, there’s drama to be found in the simple division of a sibling pair. Although explored from the perspective of their mother, in Amy Gentry’s ‘novel of suspense’ Good as Gone, it’s 10-year-old Jane who’s the only witness to her older sister Julie’s kidnap, a twist of fate that renders her something akin to an accomplice in her grieving mother’s mind. Meanwhile, a woman attempting to solve the mystery of her sister’s murder narrates Flynn Berry’s taut psychological thriller, Under the Harrow. Obsessed with finding her beloved sister’s killer, Nora finds her own life on hold and in danger, unable to return to something resembling normal existence, let alone move on, until she uncovers the truth. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but both Gentry and Berry demonstrate skills above and beyond the basic twists and turns needed for a thriller to function adequately. Each understands the complexities of the sibling bond and uses this easily damaged but ultimately steadfast tie that binds to great effect.
The same opportunity for secrets, lies and betrayal as offered by the marriage thriller – a sibling, perhaps even more than a marriage partner, should be someone you can trust implicitly – intertwined with the additional gamut of jealousy and rivalry that so often plays out between two sisters. Nuala Ellwood’s My Sister’s Bones was the first of this year’s offerings to explore the good v bad sister dynamic, a set-up also used by Michelle Adams in My Sister (April). Family secrets loom large in both novels, and while it’s ostensibly the parents who’ve kept secrets from their children, the focus is not on mending child-parent bonds (impossible since in each novel the action is kick-started by a parental death), instead they’re all about how these actions have affected the relationship between their offspring.
Then there’s Chloé J Esposito’s Mad (June), the first in what’s purported to be a no-holds barred X-rated trilogy about “the lengths an identical twin will go to, to steal her sister’s perfect life and keep on living it.” Jealousy, betrayal and revenge are also the name of the game in Alice Feeney’s Sometimes I Lie and Isabel Ashdown’s Little Sister (July 2017). Feeney, through the use of the familiar figure of the unreliable narrator, not to mention the slow unfurling of the central protagonist’s childhood in parallel with the disturbing events unfolding in the present, has her reader wondering which sibling is which. While Ashdown’s novel features the slow adoption of one sister’s life by the other: payback for a long-since-past betrayal, we eventually learn; everyone knows that revenge is a dish best served cold.
The psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell argues that the trauma of the sibling relationship is the trauma of realising that you are not unique. Sibling relationships are about sameness and difference and the first conundrum facing a child confronted with a baby brother or sister is that of reconciling these two apparently opposing states of being. The new sibling is both the same as them – in the larger picture they’re in the same position in the broader family, especially in relation to their parents – but at the same time different from them.
Mitchell argues that in this situation the first born feels “displaced, deposed and without the place that was hers or his.” Her argument is one of position rather than of identity. “The struggle,” she explains, “is not, ‘Who am I?’ but, ‘Where am I?’; not one of identity (though it is often confused with this) but of, ‘what is my position in this kinship scenario?’” What makes the sibling thriller so intriguing and so successful a genre is that it exploits this exact confusion. The power of any thriller lies in its ability to tap into the horrors of one’s worst nightmares. And these novels play out scenarios in which obliteration by the sibling is a terrifying reality.
Sibling identity theft is both the ultimate horror story and the ultimate act of revenge
Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself spun this particular terror to great effect. Published in 2016, it could be described as patient zero when it comes to this current literary trend. Two identical six-year-old twins, Helen and Ellie, decide to swap places. Their plan works brilliantly and they fool everyone, even their mother. But when Helen – always the ringleader, mature for her age, bright, sweet and polite, “the good one” – grows bored of the joke and tells Ellie – the “problem child”, slow, messy, uncoordinated, prone to sullen moods – it’s time to swap back, Ellie refuses. “I make up my mind to do everything I can to be my best possible Helen so that even with the rubbish Ellie hair and clothes, the real Helen-ness will shine through and Mother will have no choice but to know that it’s me,” Helen tries to reassure herself.
Unfortunately though, this doesn’t work, and she finds herself trapped in a living nightmare, the irony being that in her growing frustration with the situation and her increasingly desperate attempts to convince people she’s the real Helen, she’s actually becoming more and more like the sister she’s trying so hard to convince everyone she’s not: irrational, badly-behaved and, as far as everyone else is concerned, a liar. What Helen subsequently lives out – driven literally mad (as an adult she suffers from serious mental health issues) – is the fate that hangs so ominously over many of the victims in these sibling thrillers: Nora in Under the Harrow, Kate in My Sister’s Bones, Irini in My Sister, and Amber in Alice Feeney’s Sometimes I Lie. Sibling identity theft is both the ultimate horror story and the ultimate act of revenge – it just depends who's who, victim or perpetrator. A distinction that isn't always so easy to make.
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