Wednesday 22 November 2017

Twisted sister: fiction's latest genre

Thrillers with the word 'girl' in the title once dominated the sales charts - but now the theme of toxic sisters is having its moment

Cover art taken from 'Little Sister' by Isabel Ashdown
Cover art taken from 'Little Sister' by Isabel Ashdown
Nuala Ellwood's latest novel is 'My Sister's Bones'

Claire Coughlan

The success of novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train became prototypes for the proliferation of tense, gripping novels by mostly female authors catching a wave on the zeitgeist.

As a genre, the premise of 'Grip Lit' is simple: no-one is safe behind closed doors.

But this year has seen its focus shift away from the dynamics within marriages to what happens when sisterly love goes sour. Books with 'girl' in the title are no more; now it's all about 'sister'.

From innocuous-sounding names such as Little Sister (Trapeze), by Isabel Ashdown, The Second Sister (Harper), by Claire Kendal and My Sister (Headline) by Michelle Adams; to novels with more immediately sinister undertones like My Sister's Bones (Viking), by Nuala Ellwood, there's no mistaking from the very beginning what these books set out to do.

Paula Hawkins's new novel, Into the Water (Transworld) is already topping the charts. It may not have 'sister' anywhere in its title, but at its heart is the relationship between sisters Nel and Jules.

So, what is it about this particular familial relationship that is yielding such bountiful harvest for the contemporary suspense novelist?

"Your siblings know what to say to wound you. But it's also the loyalty too; they could say something horrible to you, but you'd defend them to the death. It's a complex relationship, but it was lovely to explore in a novel," says Ellwood who was named as one of The Guardian's 'New Faces of Fiction 2017' when her atmospheric thriller, My Sister's Bones, came out earlier this year.

The novel is about sisters Kate and Sally, survivors of an abusive upbringing. Kate is a war reporter, while Sally stayed behind in their home town of Herne Bay to raise a family.

"The inspiration began with war reporting, and female war reporting in particular," says Ellwood, who grew up in Yorkshire, the daughter of Irish BBC journalist Luke Casey.

"My dad wasn't a war reporter, but we had friends of the family who were. When I was in my early 20s, I encountered Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Syria. She gave a wonderful talk at the Chelsea Arts Club, where I was working, and I remember her saying that "bravery is not being afraid to be afraid". It was a wonderful line that stuck with me.

"I'd always wanted to write a novel about a war reporter and when I was researching I found out more about post- traumatic stress disorder and how that's often overlooked with war reporting.

"After Marie Colvin died, I began reading her collected journalism and there was a lovely foreword written by her sister - who she got on very well with, nothing like the two in my novel," Ellwood is quick to point out.

But the seed of an idea about the dynamic between sisters had been planted.

"It sparked something off in my head, where I thought, perhaps this character in my novel, who's been all over the world fighting injustice and standing up for the underdog, what would happen if she had a sister who's never left their small home town, but who is fighting her own internal battles which are just as tough as Kate's physical ones?

"That's really where the character of Sally came from. And they both have very different recollections of their childhood."

Michelle Adams's compelling debut, My Sister, tells the story of Irini, who was given away by her parents at the age of three, while her volatile sister Elle was kept within the family. The novel reveals the dramatic impact their mother's decision had on the sisters' lives and the dynamic between them, 20 years later.

"I wanted to write a story about adoption. That came from a very personal place; my husband and I are in the process of trying to adopt at the moment," says the UK-born Adams, who now lives in Cyprus.

"I wanted to tell a story about the biological mother, who is often the person in the story who is least heard and society is often quite judgemental."

The theme of family in general, sisters in particular, provides fascinating material for the writer of fiction, says Isabel Ashdown, author of Little Sister, a gripping read, which takes a look what happens when Emily's baby Daisy disappears while in the care of her sister Jess.

"It's a really interesting dynamic because you know so much about each other.

"And it's a bit like that thing when you're at school and quite often it's your best friends who become your worst enemies, when you're going through your anxious teenage years. Your best friends can be the people who wound you the deepest. And I think it's the same, or more so, with sisters."

Sunday Independent

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