van der Vlugt, Simone - 'Shadow Sister' (translated by Michele Hutchison)
Although I am not a fan of novels about twins, as the opportunity for cliche is often too much for the author, SHADOW SISTER (originally published in Dutch in 2005) is a creepy little tale that I can highly recommend. It is a very worthy successor to the author's earlier THE REUNION, though the two books are independent.
SHADOW SISTER opens with Lydia describing to the reader her day as a teacher in a Rotterdam multidenominational state school - she's dealing with teenage students from a range of cultures and is threatened with a knife by one of them, Bilal. Shocked, she does not know whether to report the incident to the police - the headmaster Jan is keen for her to keep the information to herself to protect the school's reputation, saying he'll exclude the boy. Lydia reflects on how hard she works to communicate with her students, seeing them outside school and helping them with their various family as well as educational problems. She is from a rich family, so does not have to work, but feels passionate about her teaching role and in particular helping people from other cultures who suffer discrimination in Dutch society. Lydia's husband Raoul is less keen on her job: he'd prefer her to stay at home to look after their six-year-old daughter Valerie, perhaps taking a part-time position at the software company he owns. A company, it soon transpires, that exists due to Lydia's investment in it.
After a few chapters setting the scene of Lydia's life and anxiety about the possibility that Bilal is stalking her, the voice of the narrator shifts to Elisa, Lydia's twin sister. Elisa is far less extrovert than Lydia - she runs a photography studio and does not bother spending money on clothes or trying to look fashionable. The two sisters are very close, however, always going on holiday together. We learn a bit more about Elisa's life and about her two friends, Sylvie and Tom, whom Lydia does not like much.
After a while, we realize, shockingly, that one of the young women has been killed. Yet the rest of the novel continues to alternate the narration between them, so we learn of events leading up to the death as well as of the aftermath (in the words of the survivor), to chilling effect. Although at first it seems as if there is only one obvious suspect for the perpetrator, as the book progresses we realize that neither Lydia nor Elisa is entirely as they seem, particularly when we glimpse either of them through the eyes of the other characters. There is a lot more going on under the surface than the reader is being told, and the author does not put a foot wrong in the difficult task of making the narrators seem honest while at the same time conveying more than they are willing to admit to themselves or to us. More suspects emerge from the woodwork as the reader gradually becomes privy to the real story of what is going on in the women's lives and that of their friends and families. The novel is creepy, effective and highly readable, though I found the last couple of chapters disappointing and hastily contrived.
Read another review of SHADOW SISTER.
Maxine Clarke, England
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