My Sisters Bones by Nuala Ellwood is a psychological thriller about a war reporter who returns to her childhood home after her mother's death but becomes convinced that all is not well in the house next door—but is what she’s seeing real or a symptom of the trauma she suffered in Syria? (Available July 11, 2017.)
To say that the relationship between sisters Kate and Sally is fractured is putting it mildly, and they couldn’t be more different. Kate is a renowned war reporter and only feels truly at home overseas amidst the rubble and conflict in Syria and Iraq. Sally, on the other hand, is a bitter alcoholic that can barely function in daily life.
When their mother dies, it’s Sally’s husband, Paul, that takes care of most of the arrangements. He meets up with Kate—who just returned to seaside Herne Bay in Kent from Syria—to finalize their mother’s affairs and sell their childhood home, where she’ll stay temporarily. Kate is carrying a dark secret though, and it’s manifesting itself in horrible ways, especially when she goes to sleep:
Moments later I am in a shop filled with dust. It swirled around the room, seeping into the cavities and crevices like poisonous gas. As I step further inside, the dust thickens and I can’t see. My mouth is dry with fear but I must keep going.
This shop was once full of customers, full of life. Piles of travel brochures and black-market cigarettes lined its shelves and a small boy ran down the aisles telling his stories to anyone who would listen, but now all is silence as I walk through the mounds of rubble.
The ground is different here, slick and wet, and when I look down I see my boots are covered in dark red stains. I’m no longer walking on rubble but trudging through thick, glutinous blood.
I hear a camera click and its flash illuminates the room. The shock of the light makes me lose my footing and I fall, face down, into the fluid. Looking up, I see a pile of stones, a small shrine amid an ocean of blood, and I crawl towards it, sensing what lies beneath. I feel his heartbeat vibrating beneath my hands and I begin to dig. I am a burrowing animal as I pull away the rubble, clawing at it with my fingernails. Spots of crimson dot the stones and I realize it is coming from my hands, though I feel no pain. Then I see him, lying on his back, eyes open, arms raised upwards; a baby looking for its mother.
I try not to look at his face as I bend down to pick him up. Behind me, the camera flashes and the boy is illuminated in a harsh white glare. I can’t see him; he is dissolving into the light. Stop it, I cry to the man with the camera, you can’t photograph this, and as my voice echoes against the shattered walls the ground shakes. The boy looks at me, pleadingly, and I try to grab hold of his hand but it slips through my fingers. He is dust and I watch as he returns to the earth. But in the final moments he calls out.
It’s the last thing I hear as the camera’s flash blinds me and I blink myself awake.
The nightmares are bad enough, but she’s also hearing voices and mourning the breakup with her married lover. She keeps seeing a small boy in the garden by the house, but when she confronts the neighbor, a woman named Fida, she insists she has no child. But Kate suspects that Fida might be hiding something.
Obviously, Kate is suffering from PTSD. But for someone like her, who is used to being so self-reliant, it's a hard pill to swallow to seek help from others. Paul is very helpful, but Kate knows that he’s got a lot on his plate with Sally and the sad shell she’s become.
Things come to a head one night when Kate is sure she hears a noise in the neighbor’s shed and is convinced a child is hiding in there. In the scuffle, she’s arrested and detained for a mental health evaluation. It’s during that evaluation that we learn of Kate and Sally’s painful childhood at the hands of an abusive father. But Kate and Sally have different takes on that time in their lives, and Sally is still reeling from the disappearance of her 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, five years previously.
Is Kate really seeing a child in the garden, or is the painful memory of a boy in Syria causing her to see things?
In her thrilling debut, Ellwood effectively portrays the fallout of war, specifically on the mind, which affects not just the soldiers that fight but also the journalists that cover it. Further, her exploration of the bond between sisters, what happens when it’s severed, and the secrets that families keep is very believable. Events take a shocking turn in the third act, and the ensuing twist is a juicy one. I didn’t see it coming! I’ll look forward to what this talented author has up her sleeve next.
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