Isabel Ashdown returns to the Isle of Wight* for the setting of her latest novel, Little Sister, and rather appropriately for this dark tale of sibling rivalry and lost children she’s gone over to slightly wilder West Wight. (I lived on this side of the island for nine years before leaving to go to university, so I was excited to read something set there, and see how she’d use some of its locations.)
After sixteen years apart sisters Jessica and Emily are reunited. With the past now behind them, the warmth they once shared quickly returns and before long Jess has moved into Emily’s comfortable island home. Life couldn’t be better. But when baby Daisy disappears while in Jess’s care, the perfect life Emily has so carefully built starts to fall apart.
Was Emily right to trust her sister after everything that happened before?
Little Sister starts as it means to go on with an intriguing but incredibly disconcerting prologue which sets the tone for the entire book. Told from the viewpoint of three of the characters, Little Sister is a tense, almost claustrophobic novel thanks to its relatively small cast of characters and with the majority of the action taking place inside Emily’s home. It’s almost a relief when Jess goes for a walk or Emily does a flit, even when the police come round with an update. You get a real sense of what it is like to be in that home with all the anxiety of not knowing where baby Daisy is or if she’ll be found safe and well, as the strained family dynamic starts to rupture and outside the press pack lines the drive in wait for a clickbait headline or a compromising photo opportunity. A nightmare situation Isabel Ashdown makes vivid.
Little Sister is aptly named for while one little sister is missing on and off-the-page, another takes a central role in the story: alongside the search for absent Daisy, Isabel Ashdown takes us back into the history between the two grown-up sisters, Jess and Emily. Theirs is a fascinating dynamic, almost suffocating in its intensity. One is painted as shy, good and the peacemaker, the other as more extrovert, if calculating and manipulative with it. Isabel Ashdown helps you to get to know one of the sisters better by having her tell her story in first person while the other seems more distant and harder to read by having her side told in third person. Nothing is ever quite what it seems though and neither sister appears to be a reliable narrator; one because she’s only recently come back into the other’s life, and the other because she’s distraught, emotional, suspicious and heavily medicated.
As a reader, I constantly had to ask myself what was going on here, who was telling the truth – or at least part of it – and was this a return to their childhood roles or a whole new game being played out against the backdrop of this new family trauma. The difficulty of picking a way through their stories is further compounded by an existing medical condition, erratic suspicions, unhelpful press intrusions, and the devastating secrets nurtured by other members of this all too modern-day family. Isabel Ashdown always writes in carefully measured prose, and here she drip feeds us the dual stories of the missing baby and the sisters’ history. While this may seem frustrating and slow at times, it gives the reader a real sense of what it feels like for the family waiting for news in this kind of situation. Minutes would feel like hours and days like weeks if someone had taken your child. That comes through here and its interesting and telling to see how each member of the family copes (or doesn’t) with this being the case. It also makes each devastating new bombshell that Isabel Ashdown throws in all the more explosive and unexpected.
Little Sister is a tense psychological study of a modern family in crisis when a traumatic event happens, bringing devastating secrets (some long-held) out into the open. The island setting only adds to the book’s sense of containment and claustrophobia. You can’t help but feel things coming to a head and wonder what the fall-out will be, making Isabel Ashdown’s Little Sister a disturbing yet truly compelling read.
Little Sister by Isabel Ashdown is published by Trapeze, an imprint of Orion. It’s out as an ebook today and you can buy it from Amazon UK, Google Play, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Kobo and iTunes. The paperback is due out on 27 July and available for pre-order. Isabel’s put together a photo gallery of locations used in her book and made on her research trip which you can view here: Little Sister Gallery.
I received an early proof copy of the book through the Amazon Vine review programme, so you can also read my review here.
* Isabel’s third novel Summer of ’76 was also set there.