After the incredible conclusion to Blood Sisters by Jane Corry, I knew that my next book was going to be a disappointment no matter what. I was surprised, therefore, to find that I didn’t mind Fiona Neill’s cross between mystery fiction and teen angst fiction, but also a bit disappointed at the mundane nature of it.
Nick and Rosie were happy until the breakdown of their best friends’ marriage led to Nick falling in love with Lisa and the life long friendship of their children falling apart. Or were they? Daughter Daisy is in an ongoing fight with OCD, brought on by her obsessive nature and the tumultuous changes of her teenage years. Son Max holds himself responsible for the consequences of their final holiday together in Norfolk. But Lisa is dying, and she wants to see Rosie one last time, and she has something to tell her that can’t be shared by letter. The children struggle to protect their mother while their own memories, sanity and motives are called into question as Lisa slowly grows more and more ill.
This was less a novel about betrayal and more a novel about the fallibility of memory. From the outset, the same moment is presented by one character before being recalled in a mildly different way by another character. This creates an immediate atmosphere of doubt as the reader isn’t sure whether the children are remembering things differently, or their parents. This could actually have been done very subtly and very well, but Neill over-plays her hand by making Nick a research specialist into the fallibility of memory and its pitfalls. It is repeated far too often for comfort, meaning that Neill signposts the most impressive part of the plot of the narrative far too early, and far to obviously. As a result, the ultimate revelation that the event that Daisy witnessed that pushed her over the edge didn’t actually happen as she remembered it a massive anticlimax, and as a result it is not dealt with as well as it could have been.
Neill’s characterisation is thorough, but bland. Nick’s infidelity is repeated, and this is the great secret that Lisa wants to share with Rosie. It, like Daisy’s realisation, was a huge anticlimax. I felt like Neill had been building up to more and my expectations weren’t quite met. The most well developed character was most definitely Max, who showed progression from blindly supporting his sister to focusing on his own life at the expense of his family. He is still relatively uncomplicated, however, and this meant that I felt ambivalent towards him rather than sympathetic.
What Neill does do well, however, is portray Daisy’s OCD. Whilst Daisy herself is disappointingly two dimensional, the portrayal of her illness is heart wrenching, thought provoking and genuine. I hope that Neill did thorough research into the condition before using it as a narrative ploy, because I started reading the book with very little knowledge of the condition other than its popular hype and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and certainly feel that a lot of my preconceptions have been vanquished – I certainly shall never use the phrase ‘I just have OCD’ as a joke again. Neill successfully portrays the anxiety disorder’s ability to take over not only Daisy’s life, but also Max’s and Rosie’s, in a really powerful way. As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, it was eye opening to witness it in its severity, and I give Neill a huge thumbs up for portraying it so honestly.
I’m surprised there was nothing from Lisa’s point of view, as her act of suicide at the conclusion of the novel really came from nowhere, although with retrospect it was hinted at. I dislike that Max witnessed it and made a conscious choice not to intervene, choosing his sister’s health over another human’s life, and I felt that Lisa was very unrepresented in a book that was really about her. In the ‘book club’ questions at the back of the novel (which seriously bug me, unless you’ve been dead 50 years, stop assuming that people are going to read your work and want to discuss it, but that’s an issue for another day) Neill puts forward the questions ‘why do you think none of the story was told from her point of view’. Metaphorically speaking, it’s because she was already dead. Her husband was seeking comfort elsewhere, her children hated her for leaving their father, her step children wanted nothing to do with her, her best friend hadn’t spoken to her for eight years and the cancer was rigorous in its attack on her body… Throughout the story, Lisa is simply a ghost that frightens and torments others, but she is not really portrayed as a real person, and any discussion of her is idealistic, from Nick’s point of view, or hateful, from everyone else’s. It’s unfortunate, as there was rich story to tell there, but Neill decided to leave it out.
Overall, whilst the book was generally disappointing and I won’t be looking out for Neill again, I did enjoy reading it and whilst the secrets and revelations were laboured and predictable, it did keep me turning the pages quickly until the very end.