Rosamund Lupton’s debut novel, Sister, succeeds as both an engrossing psychological thriller and an intense illumination of familial love. Because of its distinct and credible characters we easily classify Lupton’s crime novel as literary fiction. Characters realistically influence events and those events in turn shape the characters.
After the body of 26-year-old Beatrice Hemming’s younger sister, Tess, is found in an abandoned men’s restroom in Hyde Park, the coroner returns a verdict of suicide. Beatrice, however, is certain that her sister was murdered. “No,” she declares, “Tess wouldn’t kill herself.” Determined to uncover the truth, she obsessively searches for clues on her own.
Beatrice is the novel’s central character and first-person narrator, telling her story as a letter to the deceased Tess. As surely as it chronicles her struggle to learn how and why Tess died, it reveals Beatrice’s own soul-searching and self-recrimination.
A few days before Tess’s death her mother phones Beatrice in New York to tell her that Tess is missing. Beatrice is unhinged with anxiety as she travels to London on the first available flight.
From the novel’s outset Lupton establishes how different the sisters are. Beatrice is the sensible and cautious one. Though she did leave her mother and sister behind in England to move to New York, once there she settled for a secure but boring job at a graphic arts company, a dull and predictable boyfriend, and an uncluttered, upscale apartment completely lacking in charm.
Tess, in contrast, had been exuberant and spontaneous, a painter of some talent who lived alone in a tiny basement flat in an undesirable London neighborhood. Her art work is “Joyous. Beautiful. Explosions of oil on canvas – of life and light and color.” Tess had a knack for living every moment to the fullest and for making friends with everyone she met. She found “the beautiful in everyday things.” Tess understood that Beatrice was afraid of life and that she would rather be safe than happy.
In her letter Beatrice confides in Tess:
“You were right…other people may sail through lives of blue seas, with only the occasional squall, but for me life has always been a mountain, sheer faced and perilous.”
As she relates the absorbing events leading up to Tess’s death, Lupton sketches in a compelling back story. We learn, for example, that the sisters had a brother who died at age eight from Cystic Fibrosis, that their father deserted them and moved to France with a much-younger new wife, and that as a young girl Beatrice was sent off to boarding school against her will.
Lupton’s plot twists sustain suspense as she reveals only gradually the circumstances of Tess’s life and death. We learn that she died two days after giving birth to a stillborn baby boy; that the father of her baby is an instructor at the art school she attended; that a fellow art student had stalked her through Hyde Park moments before her death; and that her fetus had been a part of a Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Trial.
The medical-ethics issue of gene therapy versus genetic enhancement therapy (which is illegal) plays a key role in Lupton’s mystery, and the novel explores this notion in just enough detail.
Included in the book’s large cast of characters is a policeman, Detective Inspector Haines, who repeatedly warns Beatrice about indiscriminately blaming one person after another for the crime. He is a hard-edged man, “superior, patriarchal, patronizing toward other people and unquestioning of himself.” Another marvelous character is Kaisa, Tess’s Polish friend who, too, has undergone the Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy during her pregnancy. Like Tess she is cheerful and heartening even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Undoubtedly the most convincing character, the one who is indelibly impacted by the events of the plot, is Beatrice herself. In the novel’s final pages Beatrice wants Tess to know of her transformation:
“…I’m not broken. I’m not destroyed. Terrified witless, shaking, retching with fear, yes. But no longer insecure. Because during my search for how you died, I somehow found myself to be a different person.”