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Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book "The Good Sister."

Summary:
Fern and Rose are fraternal twins. Rose is smart, driven, and Fern’s protector. Fern doesn’t understand the world and so Rose has protected her, ever since they were small. For example, Fern didn’t understand that they spent every day in the library one year when they were little because they were homeless. Just one example of the many ways their mother failed them. In fact, Fern even became a librarian, she remembered that year so fondly. It’s a good thing she has Rose. When Rose struggles with infertility with her husband, Fern hatches a plan to repay Rose for being such a good sister. She’ll get pregnant and give the baby to her. But of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Review:
Sally Hepworth writes psychological thrillers starring casts of women in Australia. Sometimes they feature larger casts of women and other times it’s a couple of women pitted against each other. This is mostly the latter category.

I had my suspicions about the mystery early but thought that must not be it because it was so simplistic. I am sorry to report – it was indeed it. Some psychological thrillers lean a bit too heavily on the trope of – one person in this world is “crazy!” and did unpredictable “crazy!” things and there is no helping them because they are just so “crazy!” so let’s lock them up. I’m not a big fan of this trope for two reasons: 1) people are more complex than that 2) it’s a bit of a cheat to the reader because then things can happen that are unpredictable and make no sense. However, I get it that it’s a trope in psychological thrillers and am usually willing to give it a bit of a pass. In this case, however, the reader is told this character probably has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s a character who has told their therapist all about them, and that therapist hypothesizes that this character might have one of these two illnesses. Everyone else in the book just accepts this and moves on. I am not saying people with these personality disorders never do bad things or hurt others, but the same can be said of all types of people. Plus, the character’s actions aren’t made out to be about them as a person but rather a symptom of their illness. It reminds me of how Schizophrenia used to be treated in literature. This character doesn’t even get the decency of having the state investigate their mental health or a clear diagnosis. It both unnecessarily maligns two of the most maligned types of mental illnesses and creates an entirely two-dimensional character.

Then there’s the representation of Autism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Fern is Autistic (I am not using person-first language as many in the Autistic community prefer claiming the word as a part of who they are, rather than as an illness), but she is depicted in such a stereotypical way that it hurt to read. For example, constantly bringing up how she doesn’t like to look people in the eyes and belaboring the point at random times when she might make eye contact. Her sensory episodes felt as if they were written by someone outside of her body rather than by her – problematic since it was written in the first person. The whole first half of the book has a lot of anti-Autistic sentiment, including wondering whether or not Fern could actually be capable of raising a baby. Are these reversed at the end of the book? Somewhat. But to me the damage is done by wondering about it in the first half.

So why am I still giving this book three stars? I have to admit that it was a page turner – I had to know what happened to Fern and the baby growing inside her. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew. The energy of must-find-out that is needed in a thriller was there, even if I was disappointed by the characterization, representation, and ultimately found the solution to be a bit flat.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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