Saturday, May 21, 2011


SHADOW SISTER by Simone van der Vlugt

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Lydia and Elisa, twin sisters, identical in appearance, different in every other way. Lydia has her life in order and opinions on everything, from her husband's business to her sister's friends, to her fellow teachers. If only those around her could live up to her high standards. But when a student, Bilal, pulls a knife on Lydia her perfect life begins to unravel. She turns to her sister. But Elisa is powerless to protect her from what follows: an anonymous letter, her car vandalised, someone watching her house. How far will Bilal go? Or is someone else the real threat? And what part does Elisa play in all of this? Twins are close ... aren't they?

This is a brooding, creepy psychological thriller from 'Holland's Queen of Crime'. It's centred on identical twin sisters who are completely different people: Lydia’s an opinionated teacher with a husband, daughter, and relatively settled life. Elise is a photographer: quieter, darker, and troubled.

The different perspectives each sister has on their relationship and the people and world around them provides a fascinating thread throughout the novel; each has her own distinct voice. The novel starts sharply, with Lydia threatened by a Muslim student with a knife. She has a lot of immigrant families and children at her school, and has for her own personal reasons wanted to continue teaching there despite her husband trying to get her to leave and join him at his successful software business.

This is an unusual book, structurally, but I won't go into that too much in case of giving away spoilers. It took me a little while to adjust to Van Der Vlugt's style (or perhaps more accurately, the style of her translator), but once I settled into it I found SHADOW SISTER to be an atmospheric, creepy thriller. I felt a little detached from it, not fully caught up and engaged, but that may have been because it has been translated from another language, or that us English-speaking readers aren't as used to a different, Continental Europe style of crime storytelling.

I enjoyed the way that Van Der Vlugt played with our perceptions and early assumptions, instigating cracks in what we thought about each of the sisters as we learn more. Perhaps Lydia wasn't so perfect after all, and Elisa isn't such of a mess? It's a fascinating book that has a lot of good things in it, but never fully clicked for me enough to elevate it firmly into the four-star-plus level.

Still, a good read, and a great pick for those looking to try crime fiction from a variety of different countries, not just that translated from Scandinavian languages.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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