The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke
So first up is this gem of a debut novel by Lucy Clarke. I came to read this after hearing and reading about it so many times that the recommendations reached a kind of critical mass in my brain. This is very often how I read these days; rather than spontaneously choosing something that has a great blurb, I’m tending to choose things I’ve heard about numerous times through a combination of my regular podcasts (the subject of another blog post I think!), reviews via twitter or Writer’s Forum magazine, friends recommendations and author interviews.
(Quick aside – the latter is an interesting one actually as it has prompted me to try books by authors I wouldn’t normally buy. If the author sounds interesting and can describe really well what their motivation was for writing a certain novel, I almost can’t bear NOT to read it. I’m really interested in this, how do you choose what to read? Leave me a comment).
Anyway, on with the actual subject of this blog post! Lucy’s novel ticked a lot of boxes for me; it was a debut novel from a British author (with a great name!) who had struggled initially to get published and who, after studying English at University, ended up working in the business world despite the strong signs that writing was what she should do. Her story struck a nerve with me, so much so that I actually started reading her novel on kindle when I was already in the middle of two other books – something I NEVER do. Once I’d downloaded it, I read over 40% of the 400 pages in one sitting.
The blurb says:
Two sisters, one life-changing journey…
There are some currents in the relationship between sisters that run so dark and so deep, it’s better for the people swimming on the surface never to know what’s beneath . . .
Katie’s carefully structured world is shattered by the news that her headstrong younger sister, Mia, has been found dead in Bali – and the police claim it was suicide.
With only the entries of Mia’s travel journal as her guide, Katie retraces the last few months of her sister’s life, and – page by page, country by country – begins to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.
What she discovers changes everything. But will her search for the truth push their sisterly bond – and Katie – to breaking point?
The Sea Sisters is a compelling story of the enduring connection between sisters.
Which I’ll be honest, wasn’t enough for me to read it. In fact, it was enough for me to pick it up from the virtual book-shelf at Amazon and discard it a few times. Not having a sister (or even a brother), the way the blurb positions the story with the sibling relationship as the central theme was a big turn off. Having now finished it, a far greater hook for me as a reader would have been the mystery surrounding Mia’s death which doesn’t feel strongly emphasised enough in the few lines above.
Anyway, as the blurb suggests, at the news of her sister’s death in Bali, the flying-phobic Katie drops everything, leaving behind a successful job and a fiancé she is due to marry in a few months’ time, to travel around the world in her sisters footsteps by following her travel journal entries. She flies where Mia flew, stays in the same hostels and eats in the same restaurants. The story is told in two halves with one following Katie’s experience and the other following Mia, before they converge at the end in a satisfying denouement.
The sister’s travels are not centred on local tourist attractions or ‘places’ as such. Mia’s choice to depart England is written very much as a ‘running away’ rather than a desire to actually see and experience the places she visits (with one exception). Interestingly, this was one aspect of the novel I was partially dreading; I think I had pictured a kind of Dan-Brown-esque romp around Australia and Indonesia, but in the end I was actually left a little dissatisfied at the lack of local colour and detail. I’d have liked a little bit more.
One landscape that is painted in great detail throughout the novel though, as indeed you may expect from the title, is that of the sea. If I hadn’t already heard Lucy Clarke in an interview describing how she lives by the sea and completes much of her best writing on the beach (another ‘hook’ that drew me to the novel in the first place), I think I would still have been able to glean a special relationship with the sea from the story. It is interesting though that despite her obvious love for it, in the Sea Sisters the sea is more often painted as dangerous, frightening and uncontrollable than as serene, inspiring and comforting.
When I try and describe the two sisters on paper, they sound drawn as stereotypical polar opposites but I have to say that wasn’t something that bothered me too much when I was reading. Even in appearance Katie is fair and Mia dark and their characteristics bear that distinction out. Katie likes to be in control and as such, has a fear of flying and the sea; she has a good, steady job with a good,
steady income and a steady man waiting in the wings. She is the ‘good sister’ who looked after her mum in her decline and was holding her hand when she died.
Mia is wild and unruly. She loves the sea and far from having a fear of flying, is quite happy jumping out of a plane in her search for the next adrenaline rush. She moves from job to job and never has enough money. She found facing up to her mother’s illness hard and so avoided it, thereby missing her mother’s death and running from difficult situations ever since. She has no steady, romantic interest in her life and tends to make bad decisions when it comes to love and sex.
Both characters actually come across in the novel as very human. I didn’t love either of them, but I did come to understand their various drives, motivations and desires. Woven into the main story is a sub-plot about Katie and Mia’s absent father which added depth to the story and helped explain some of this. I can’t go into more detail about that without spoilers so I’ll stop there…
Of all the characters in the novel, my favourite by far was Finn; Mia’s lifelong friend who drops everything to accompany Mia on her travels. Finn is amazing. There’s a part of me that wants a friend like Finn but another part that wants to mother him, wrap him up in a blanket and feed him chicken soup.
On the flip side, I really hated Ed – Katie’s fiancé. It’s very hard to write dialogue in a novel that sounds meaningful when it is peppered with as many ‘darling’ references as Ed uses. It just sounds patronising and for a woman drawn as strong and independent as Katie, I couldn’t imagine why in the world she would choose a man that spoke to her like a child. But perhaps that was the point…
Despite the obvious differences between the sisters, at the end of the novel you’re left wondering how different they actually are. Part of the tragedy certainly comes from the fact that despite not having the best relationship when Mia was alive, deep down both sisters envied those characteristics of the other that had most obviously come to define them. Perhaps the real conclusion to the novel is that to get the most from life we should all aim for some kind of ‘balance’ and ‘middle ground’, neither sitting wholly at one end of the spectrum of control, or the other.
The main plot question – did Mia commit suicide or not – is answered at the end of the novel. For a moment I did wonder whether it was going to leave me hanging and I’m not sure how I would have felt about that. I did feel that the way it came to be answered was a little too neat and tidy but I was also grateful I knew. Bit of a paradox there. I certainly wasn’t sure which way it was going to go until the end so it did keep me guessing nicely. Did it make me cry? No, but there were occasions in the novel where I did have a lump in my throat.
Overall I really did enjoy the novel. I read it at the right time too – with the sun just beginning to make its appearance in the UK which made the references to the sun and heat in Bali all the more poignant. The only thing that would have made the physical reading experience better would have been a beach to read it on! Of course you can’t write a review without touching on what you didn’t like but these were all minor points and shouldn’t be over-emphasised. Any novel that I can escape into for 170 pages in one go is a good ‘un as far as I’m concerned and I will definitely read Lucy Clarke’s next novel with interest.
I’m always a little dubious about giving books a grade or a mark but this one gets a 4/5 from me. Read it and let me know what you think.