If You Knew My Sister by Michelle Adams is a debut novel of psychological suspense where a woman returns to her family's home to learn the truth and escape her sister's influence (available October 3, 2017).
Ever thought you had a toxic relationship with a family member? Sometimes I feel that no siblings could possibly be as dysfunctional as my own, but then I met the Harringford sisters of Michelle Adams’s debut novel.
Dr. Irini Harringford has clawed together a life for herself without much, if any, familial support. She’s studied to become an anesthesiologist and lives in a nice London flat with her Italian boyfriend, Antonio. He wants to get married and have kids, but Irini shies away from the idea. Given up at the age of three by her parents, she was raised by her father’s disapproving sister instead. The only explanation that she was ever given by her Aunt Jemima was that Irini’s mother, Cassandra, was too depressed to cope with having two daughters.
Irini has been haunted ever since by the question of why her parents chose to keep her older sister, Elle, but gave her away. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the hip dysplasia that was mostly corrected by childhood surgery, though she still carries the scars and a slight limp that earned her the cruel schoolyard nickname Peg Leg Irini.
So when Elle tracks her down as a teenager, it is at first sunshine and rainbows. At seventeen, Elle is gorgeous and fearless, dispatching the thirteen-year-old Irini’s bullies with a viciousness that earns her the younger girl’s undying gratitude. But as they spend more time together, Irini begins to realize that Elle is not a stable person. When she attempts to impress Elle by shoplifting earrings in the same way that Elle steals presents for her, the outcome is not at all what she’d expected:
And there was my moment. It was what I’d been waiting for, the chance to admit what I had done. For her. That I was like her. That we were the same. I smiled, winked just like she had when she first gave me that orange vest.
“I got it for you,” I said.
“You stole it?” she asked. I smiled collusively and bit into my burger. With that she grabbed my arm and shoved me backwards, the burger falling apart in my lap. “You stole it?” she asked again as my head cracked against the mirror behind me. I heard it shatter. “You don’t. Fucking. Steal,” she spat. She sat back, letting my arm go.
I was so stunned, I didn’t move for a second or two. A few other people noticed the scene, and watched as she ripped off the earrings. One came out all right, but the clasp on the second got stuck and she tore her ear lobe in the process. Blood dribbled down her finger when she touched it. She took a bite of her burger before licking the blood from her hand.
The sudden, startling outbursts of violence are a riveting portrayal of life with an abuser. There is something wrong with Elle, and Irini is torn between trying to distance herself from it and trying to find out what and why it is. When Cassandra dies and Elle tracks Irini down one last time to invite her to the family home in Edinburgh for the funeral, Irini can’t help but agree to go. Perhaps now, she thinks, she can find the answers she’s been looking for all her life.
Because Elle isn’t the only damaged person in the Harringford family. Irini’s parents have always held themselves aloof from her, and this has made her particularly vulnerable to Elle’s predations. Michelle Adams thoroughly explores Irini’s warped interior life, showing us in many ways why she can’t stay away from her violent, manipulative older sister:
And this reminds me that there is only one thing of which I can be sure when it comes to my sister: she is the one person who never tired of trying to find me.
At first I made it easy for her. A simple change to my phone number, a new address in the same town. Being alone was hard, and despite what happened to make me run from her at the age of eighteen, to know she was searching for me felt good. So I started to test her by raising the stakes with false trails and dead ends, forcing her to prove her resolve more and more each time. The knowledge that she was searching for me was narcotic, and I was addicted. Oh, to be wanted. What a joy it is. Yet the only thing worse than her absence was her presence.
The Harringford sisters have an extremely toxic, weirdly co-dependent relationship. So when Elle disappears after the funeral and the police come knocking on Irini’s door, Irini finds herself in the unfamiliar position of having to hunt down her sister, a process that will finally expose the many truths her family has sought to keep hidden.
Ultimately, If You Knew My Sister is a compassionate look at mental instability and the emotional toll it takes on families. No one is blameless, but no one is past redemption either—if only we look for it. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to call your siblings and tell them you care, no matter how strained your own relationship.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.