Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Australian writer, Sally Hepworth’s latest book is about sisters, twins, their relationship, and their identity, themes which she tackles very well. In this case it is about sibling dependency.
The book tells the reader of the life of the Castle twins. The title of the book, The Good Sister, implies that one of these girls is not good, but it is unclear what ‘good’ really means.
The first chapter is from the journal of Rose Ingrid Castle where she writes that her husband has left. He has taken a job in London, but she could not go because of her responsibilities, ‘one particular responsibility, (her sister) Fern’ (1). Her therapist has suggested that she should get all the worrying thoughts out of her head and onto paper – hence the journal. All the journal entries, Rose’s version of events is in a different font from the story as told by Fern.
Both Fern and Rose are the narrators of this story and the book alternates between both recollections of their lives to the present. Both have used first person narration and begin in the present, referring back to incidents in their earlier life.
Fern begins her story with a description of her job at the Bayside Public Library and her encounter with a man she assumes is homeless. It is in this early encounter with Fern’s life that the reader learns that she sees life differently from others.
Sally Hepworth’s detailed descriptions show the reader that these twins are not identical. Fern is tall with blonde hair and a narrow face. She is fastidious but absent minded, whereas Rose is petite with a round face, huge eyes and nut-brown hair. They are in their late twenties and Rose is the only one married. Both have issues which they have learned to live with. Rose has type 1 diabetes while Fern has sensory processing issues. When in trouble, she relies on Rose to rescue her.
The author has described Fern’s condition in such a way as to add humour but also elicit empathy from the reader. Fern is very bright and extremely well read as she loves to research things she does not instinctively understand. She says that ‘illogical irritation is something one is allowed to have with one’s sister. I have read enough books about sisters to know that is true’ (173).
On learning that Rose cannot have children, Fern decides that this might be something she can do for her sister. However, Fern is not in a relationship.
Fern is the dominant narrator, so it is from her that we hear most of this story. She feels comfortable in her job as a librarian, however even here she can find herself at odds with others as she takes every word literally. Why would people always say ‘excuse me’ when Fern could not detect any misdemeanour that required this action. Not understanding that some things are best left unsaid she has been known to continue, ‘and if you belched or farted, I didn’t hear it, so no need to excuse yourself for that either! (13). These situations, though obviously frustrating to Fern add much humour for the reader and make her more endearing.
People often find her odd until they get to know her and then they become staunch friends. Her boss, Carmel, decides to implement a ‘shadow day’ after which she tells Fern, ‘Wow, I never realised what a gift we had in the library’ (168). Fern replays the sentence in her head, trying to make sense of it.’ Who is the giver? And who is the receiver? And what is the occasion? She gives up trying to understand what this sentence means.
Rose on the other hand appears to be in complete control of her life.
Although the story is about the two girls at this stage in their life, their earlier years and their relationship with their mother, play an important part in what is to happen. The reader learns early in the story that something bad happened in their earlier life and that Fern is to blame.
It soon becomes clear to the reader that there is a dark undercurrent to this story and Sally Hepworth manages to keep it bubbling below until the end of the storyline.
One of the great strengths in this novel is the character development, in Fern particularly. After she meets Wally her reliance on Rose begins to diminish. It is wonderful to see her flourish. Yet, the bond between the twins is extraordinarily strong. Wally is also an interesting character. He has his own problems and seems to understand what Fern needs as she strives for a more independent life. This causes friction between him and Rose. Hepworth’s handling of these two characters is greatly appreciated by the reader.
This is a wonderful story with lots of unexpected twists. Once into it the reader is reluctant to put the book down. The characters are well developed and believable. I thoroughly enjoyed The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth. It was easy to read and not made confusing by a multitude of characters allowing me to focus on, appreciate and get to know the people who took centre stage.
By Sally Hepworth
Pan Macmillan Australia