Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review: The Good Sister

By Jami Deise

There is no love greater than the love a parent has for a child; no grief stronger than if that child dies. Perhaps that’s why thrillers so often focus on a dead or missing child; nothing draws in a reader faster than the parent’s worst nightmare, spelled out on the page.

British author Gillian McAllister’s latest thriller raises the ante on the dead baby thriller by adding another twist: The accused is the baby’s mother's younger sister. As such, the novel is more than a paint-by-numbers mystery; the relationship between the two sisters, and how they view themselves and each other, is just as important as what happened to baby Layla that October night.

The book opens with younger sister Becky on trial for smothering Martha’s eight-week-old baby. It moves back and forth in time to give a full picture of Becky, the flighty one who could never hold a job and had her own child at 19, and Martha, the older sister who did everything right: career, marriage, beautiful house, and only then pregnancy. With Martha being unable to find flexible child care during her maternity leave, and Becky hating her set-dressing gig, it seems only natural for Becky to step in when Martha needs someone to watch Layla. After all, Becky was a great mom to her own son, Xander, now entering the teenage years.

But Layla is a colicky child, and Martha takes advantage of Becky’s unwillingness to say no to her, leaving her with an infant who screams for hours. It could drive anyone over the edge. Did it drive Becky?

The story drew me right in, and the trial scenes are just as captivating as the back story. McAllister gives each witness’s point-of-view account of what they saw or heard that night, adding a Rashomon effect to the narrative. McAllister’s research shines through in the difficult scenes dealing with the baby’s death. These scenes are so detailed and authentic, it’s impossible to look away.

With such an emphasis on the relationships and the baby’s colic, it often feels more like women’s fiction than thriller; the mystery doesn’t really kick in until late in the book, when Martha starts to question who could have killed her baby if it wasn’t Becky. It’s a good combination – learning so much about the characters, I cared that much more about the outcome. And even though I guessed the ending, it still made me cry.

The Good Sister will appeal to fans of both genres, but it’s not a great book for new parents. The descriptions of Layla’s piercing, unending cries brought me right back to the earliest, most frustrating days of parenthood. And Layla’s final minutes are a reminder of just how fragile those new little bodies are.

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Gillian McAllister:

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