The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne

The Ice TwinsReading The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne is like going on a carnival ride, a combination of roller coaster and ghost train. By the end of it, I was a wreck, spooked, intrigued, fascinated by its exploration of the depths of human psychology and emotions – with its depiction of shock, grief, betrayal, anger and denial.

Set on a remote island of Skye, the story involves a young couple, Sarah and Angus, and their seven-year-old daughter Kirstie, a surviving twin, her sister Lydia having died in a fall over a year earlier. They are all grieving in their own ways, but Kirstie especially. With survivor guilt and haunted by the horror of her sister’s accident, she begins to imagine her sister hasn’t really left her.

The island where this damaged family retreat to make their new home is Eilean Torran, Gaelic for “Thunder Island”, a place of cold and violent storms, especially in winter. It’s also a place which locals call “thin”, where the spirit world meets the human. Sarah and Angus dismiss such tales, but they can’t dismiss their daughter’s eerie behaviour, or her sudden claim that they have mourned the wrong twin.

I enjoyed The Ice Twins, even as I felt highly manipulated by the many twists and turns of its narrative. One of the highlights for me was Tremayne’s setting, how it is woven into the fabric of the characters’ lives. In Sarah’s point of view, we get glimpses of the place’s history, the unforgiving backdrop to her family’s tragedy:

A lonely snowflake hits my windscreen, and is exterminated by the wipers. I look at the low balding hills. Shaved by winds and deforestation, I think of the people wrenched from this landscape by poverty and the Highland Clearances. Skye used to be populated by twenty-five thousand people. A century later it is half that. I often consider the scenes of that emigration: the crying farmwives, the sheep-dogs quietly killed, the babies screaming as they quit their beautiful, hostile homeland, and sailed west. And now I think of my daughter. (141)

Another pleasure was the author’s gift for thumbnail sketches of minor characters; here a portrait of a child psychiatrist:

Malcolm Kellaway is easily middle-aged, yet wears jeans which make him seem unconvincing. He has annoyingly effete gestures, a silly roll-neck jumper, and rimless spectacles with two perfectly round lenses that say oo. (100)

I was also taken with the author’s deft use of similes, the chilling comparisons that give this story its gothic, suspenseful atmosphere.

The climax coincides with the storm the setting always anticipated and the denouement is eerily satisfying (to say more would necessitate spoilers).

It has taken me a while to pull this novel off my To Be Read shelf, but I’m glad I did.

~

Author: S K Tremayne
Title: The Ice Twins
Publisher & date: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN: 9780007459223

Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla

Ghost Girls FerlaGhost Girls is the debut novel by Cath Ferla from Echo Publishing, the publisher that last year gave us Emma Viskic’s excellent Resurrection Bay. It’s primarily a mystery story, rather than suspense or thriller, though there are thriller elements in it.

The story centres around Sophie Sandilands, an English language teacher, resident in Sydney, who is of mixed Chinese-European heritage. Sophie has memories of her birth place, Hong Kong, and she has experience teaching English in China. With this background, she occupies a unique space in relation to her mostly Asian students and friends, many of whom work part-time in China Town, either in restaurants or in the sex trade.

Other relevant features of Sophie’s background are that her father was a private investigator and she herself has been involved in a missing persons case. These factors provide the motivation for Sophie to become more than a little involved in the death of one of her female students and the apparent disappearance of others. Along with her flatmate, Jin Tao, a local chef, she follows the trail of one missing girl, a trail that leads her into the dark alleys and seedy underworld of Sydney’s illegal strip clubs.

Ferla has a talent for evoking settings and, it seems, a passion for Asian food, and her portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of this pocket of Sydney life is well realised. Often her descriptions are entwined with characterisation, such as her reference to Sophie and Jin Tao’s tea drinking:

Forget reading the tea leaves afterwards, Jin Tao could read her mood by her choice of brew: oolong was for the weight of the world. The dark amber hue and the burnt bitterness of the leaves worked as a catharsis, helping Sophie clear her mind and refocus her senses. (58)

Another skill is the deft way she refers to characters’ pasts, dramatising them with economy and giving us insight what shapes people’s choices in later life:

[His] childhood had been one of slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. (174)

Ferla touches on some sensitive cross-cultural areas, especially in relation to immigrant Chinese women’s participation in the local sex trade. Her treatment of this, at times very dark, subject matter isn’t voyeuristic or moralistic, but rather acknowledges the complexities attendant on these women’s choices.

One aspect of the narrative which, for me, threatened to fall down was Sophie’s motivation for taking the risks she took in her endeavour to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Information relating to her mother which strengthens and explains Sophie’s motivation came, for me, a little late. If I’d known it earlier, I would have been more understanding and sympathetic towards Sophie’s choices and actions, and I couldn’t see any strong narrative reason for the delay. This is also the reason, I’d hazard, that the novel didn’t quite work for me as either a thriller or a suspense, despite several thrilling moments: because I didn’t fully identify with Sophie and the reasons she was getting herself into such trouble – until rather late, I wasn’t as engaged emotionally as I might otherwise have been. On the plus side, this is also probably why I wasn’t put off by the violent sequences and could read them with relative detachment (something I don’t find easy to do with more suspenseful stories).

These reservations aside, I found Ghost Girls a very competent debut with an interesting mystery and a fascinating cultural setting; another excellent production from Echo Publishing.

~

Author: Cath Ferla
Title: Ghost Girls
Publisher and date: Echo Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781760401177
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and 2016 Aussie Author Challenge.

The Light on the Water by Olga Lorenzo

In the months before her arrest, Anne Baxter had many hours to think about her future.

Ligt on Water Olga LorenzoWith this riveting opening, Olga Lorenzo begins a tale of woe, of a woman whose only ambition has been to love and nurture her own children, someone who had survived a harsh upbringing by a mentally unstable mother, whose marriage to a prominent barrister ended because he was unable to give her the emotional support she needed, and whose second child was born with a significant disability. The disappearance of this child, her younger daughter Aida, on an overnight bush walk in a remote coastal area of Victoria is the inciting incident for the novel: the trigger for Anne’s grief, her incarceration, her sense of guilt and the judgement of many among the community and remand centre inmates who mete out ongoing punishment.

On many levels this is a tough book to read. Despite the difficulties of her upbringing and her experience of every mother’s worst nightmare, the awful loss of her child, Anne isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. She displays something which, as I noted in an earlier review, is missing from characters in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things: the learned helplessness of the victim, the utter mind-stultifying and body-disabling passivity of those who have discovered from a very early age that it’s no use fighting; that the opposition, be it an abusive parent, a judgemental waitress, a drunk outside an airport or a fellow prisoner, is more powerful and will prevail; that survival depends on “copping it sweet”.

It’s a psychologically astute portrayal, but it can also make the reader deeply uncomfortable. For survivors of abuse, it can trigger recognition and empathy for the weakest parts of ourselves, but not necessarily compassion. My own reaction was principally one of anger. I found myself wanting to shake Anne, to say, “Wake up to yourself. Do something. Act. Respond. Fight back. Don’t be such an idiot! Think.” That’s not to say Anne is totally passive: the times she does respond had me cheering, such as when she puts her hypocritical neighbour in her place. But for the most part I found her passivity disturbing, as it dramatised, as it were, the parts of myself that fill me with self-loathing.

Counteracting the toughness of this emotional response is the pleasure derived from the novel’s use of language. Lorenzo is a teacher of creative writing and it shows. Running through the text are images drawn from nature: fish, insects, the coastal tides and the weather. At times the beauty of these images counterbalance the horror of Anne’s experiences; at other times, they echo them dispassionately or reinforce them:

Life has picked her up and carried her away on its own tide, lapping her up in its various eddies, disgorging her on these dangerous shores. (155)

Anne’s contemplation of the fish in her home aquarium stimulates reflection on her own passivity:

Is there something in her that demands that she not be comforted and helped? She’s sure there’s a pecking order among human, just as there is among her mollies, who vie for supremacy the minute two are put together in the aquarium. So does she need to have her fins shredded and her eyes picked out to remind her of her rightful place in the scheme of things? (75)

There is also a philosophical thread in the novel, an insistence that, no matter what, suffering can be endured and will be overcome. At times, this lifts the narrative into a paeon to women’s work, the work of mothering, of nurturing and enduring. Anne comes to remember with fondness the bliss of everyday, ordinary activities associated with motherhood and caring for a family:

[S]he had loved washing day, the satisfaction of the clean smells emanating from the laundry, and then the calisthenics of bending and lifting and wrestling everything onto the clothesline. She had loved the breeze catching her family’s sheets and making them billow, as if they were setting off to new lands. She revelled in the sunshine trapped in the clothes when they were brought indoors. She had felt this was a way to love her family – folding their socks and t-shirts and underpants felt akin to stroking each person. (325)

This satisfaction is made all the more remarkable for the fact that women come to the – often thankless – tasks of domestic life and child-rearing unprepared:

No one trains them, explains the countless, simple lessons mothers give their children every day. The patience required. The mind-numbing patience. (262)

There are many more aspects of this book to praise: Lorenzo’s ear for Australian idiom and depiction of class differences; her deft thumbnail sketches of incidental characters that make these people come alive on the page; her use of powerful verbs; her insights into psychology and character; her sometimes sympathetic, sometimes harsh, portrayal of different types of families; as well as her skill in portraying a range of difficult and subtle human emotions:

Looking out over the water, life at that moment seemed sad and sweet and as fleeting as the day.

This was something she felt sometimes as a child – a wistfulness, but also a tentative inkling of future possibility, of life renewed and waiting, and of the transience of her own being. (242)

Despite the toughness of the reading experience, despite the harshness and horror of much of what is portrayed, Lorenzo leaves the reader with a sense that everything will be okay.

~

Author: Olga Lorenzo
Title: The Light on the Water
Publisher and date: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781925266542

This review forms part of my 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a review copy.

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