This review is spoiler-free!
She rolls over and reaches for her instinctively: her baby. Her hand hits air and flaps reduntantly. She stumbles out of bed and switches on the light. But this only confirms it. The baby is gone. Someone has taken her. Sixteen years ago, Lizzie Armitage woke to find her newborn baby gone. Just days later, Lizzie was dead. Her sister Paula swore she would do everything she could to find the child. If she hadn’t promised to keep Lizzie’s pregnancy secret, maybe the baby wouldn’t have disappeared. And maybe Lizzie would sill be alive. But, in nearly a decade, Paula’s never found any trace. Until now… When Paula bumps into an old friend from the past, she realizes she wasn’t the only one who knew about her sister’s child. Someone knows what happened that day. Someone knows where Lizzie’s baby went. But can Paula find out the truth before another family is ripped apart?
Her Sister’s Child is indeed a thrilling psychological tale that is a mystery at its core. As Paula and Johnny realise that others must know about the baby as well they embark on a gripping investigation to figure out exactly what happened in the days before Lizzie’s untimely death. The novel cycles between the past and present perspectives of three seemingly disconnected women: Paula, social worker Marian, and pregnant teenager Charlie. By doing so the author slowly begins to piece together the puzzle of what happened, although some of those pieces are more for us to put together ourselves as the reader. Despite my initial issues with this novel, Alison James constructed a brilliantly mysterious story that allowed for some genuinely shocking moments. There is a real air of suspense and mystery, and at times tension, that is wickedly thrilling – particularly in the later stages of the novel. There were moments during Paula and Johnny’s DIY criminal investigation when they had more questions than they did answers, and some of these questions emerged over time, which definitely kept things exciting.
As compelling as I found the plot there is still a lot about this book that I honestly disliked. For instance, many of the characters felt woefully simple. There is little-to-no expansion or elaboration in regard to their development or characterisation in a way that affords them any depth, meaning that I never got the sense of truly knowing or understanding them – except Marian and perhaps Charlie. Paula, Johnny, Lizzie, and Charlie are such critical and central characters to the novel’s events but by the book’s end it felt as though there was so much left unsaid about them – especially Lizzie. Lizzie Armitage is at the heart of the novel and all of its’ thrills and mysteries stem from her and her child, yet she remains the most elusive to me. Of course, she is mentioned frequently but exists largely in Paula and Johnny’s distant memories – leaving her frozen and stuck in time, unmoving. Even in flashbacks to before her death, Lizzie felt like an untold story.
In fact, as I reflect on Her Sister’s Child and its’ characters, I get the impression that every character serves the unspoken purpose of telling Marian’s story more than anything else, which could be exactly the case. Yet by the book’s end, Marian’s story suddenly fell flat and was not given the well-written, illustrative, and poignant end I feel it should have been. I found the end of the novel rather unsatisfying as a whole, as it felt as though too much was left unsaid. There was a serious lack of description and insight missing that I think would have been incredibly instrumental in allowing the reader to establish a distinct perception of each character, and thus a profound ending. Even descriptions of their appearances was kept to minimum, which made it difficult to imagine them as actual people – the ordinary kind you could walk past in the street one day, whose stories you would never know. Instead, they felt faceless.
Now, in hindsight, I do think that there is a bigger picture to think about also, which gives the book some depth and significance. This novel revolves around the meanings that we attach to the central concepts and structures around which we build our lives – love, family, marriage, parenthood – and how they can be our saviour or our downfall. These concepts and structures are themes that are so integral to the novel that it is impossible to ignore them. Without giving too much away, for those like Charlie motherhood comes to them unexpectedly, and so they are ill-prepared, but it ends up being their saving grace. For those like middle-aged Marian, that obsess over them with a disconcerting intensity, it facillitates their downfall. Her Sister’s Child offers an obscure exploration of these everyday concepts and structures in such a uniquely fragmented way that I think subtly encourages us to re-evaluate the meaning and significance that we attach to them. While this might seem like a stretch to both those that have read the novel and those that have not, there is an indisputable yet intangible dichotomy that exists between Charlie and Marian in relation to family that I find captivating.
Although there are characters I was not overly fond of (namely Charlie, who is painfully stubborn at times) this can be expected with most novels. All in all, I think Alison James formulated a very fascinating story that makes it impossible to put the book down once you get into it – if you aren’t affronted by the somewhat regimented style of writing lack of description. The only thing that kept me reading was how personally invested I was in solving the mystery that was Lizzie’s baby. Although I also feel as though the characters were generally poorly-developed, I can just about look past this for the sake of how engrossing and thought-provoking I found the storyline. Her Sister’s Child earns 3 out of 5 stars from me, and I would recommend this book to anyone searching for a relatively quick, easy-to-read thriller with some major plot twists.
Alison James’ other works include The Man She Married, The School Friend, and The Detective Rachel Prince Trilogy.