Review: ‘Small Spaces’ by Sarah Epstein

SmallSpaces

I know things aren’t right with me – conjuring up Sparrow today is evidence of that. The worst thing I could do is drag anyone else into my mess, least of all the Fishers. I know I should talk to my parents. I know I need to arrange a session with Dr Ingrid now instead of waiting until June.
I also know I won’t do any of those things.
Instead, I’ll try to figure out how to get a mute girl to talk.

When Natasha Carmody was eight years old she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure six-year-old Mallory Fisher away at a carnival. Neither Natasha’s family nor the police believed her, and when Mallory was found seven days later she was mute from the trauma. The Fisher family moved away, and with the help of her stern mother, as well as regular visits to a child psychiatrist, Tash accepted that Sparrow wasn’t real.

Now seventeen, Tash hopes to enter her final year of schooling without incident, so that her parents will see that she is capable of moving away from the seaside town of Port Bellamy, to the city to attend university. Standing in the way of her goal is Rachael, her beautiful and popular former-friend, who was privy to Tash’s childhood secrets. As the final year of school approaches, Tash thinks her greatest fear is for Rachael to use Tash’s secrets as leverage to humiliate and bully her at school. But, the Fisher family return to Port Bellamy, and so does Sparrow. Tash realises that Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about the dark secret that connects them. Does the gruesome Sparrow exist? Is Tash going mad? Is Tash the gruesome one?

Small Spaces is a stunning, gut-wrenching thriller debut by Sarah Epstein. The first person narrative alternates between ‘now’ and ‘then’ chapters, with the ‘then’ chapters containing transcripts from psychiatrist sessions, as well as newspaper clippings. The novel is cleverly structured, as alternating between past and present not only adds to the suspense of drip-feeding the events surrounding the carnival, but is also atmospheric as it gives a sense of Tash’s increasing anxiety as she struggles to reconcile the past with the present.

A great cast of characters offer moments of tenderness and humour, courtesy of meticulously yet effortlessly crafted character traits and history. Tash is uncomfortable in her own skin, as she muses ‘my haircut is safe, my freckles are obvious and the only hip piece of clothing I own is a vintage E.T t-shirt I found in an op shop. And I don’t even wear it in public because I’m not cool enough to pull it off’. There is an element of tension underlying each of the relationships, ensuring suspicion is maintained throughout. Sadie is Tash’s fearless protector, but has a rebellious streak and confidence that far exceeds Tash’s. Even when they were friends, Tash was intimidated by Rachael, a pretty girl with trendy clothes and plane trips to her grandparents’ house in North Korea. While Tash’s nine year-old brother Tim only plays a minor role in the book, his impact is profound. He is largely oblivious to the family politics, and was too young to remember the events of the carnival. As such, he has been afforded the innocent and carefree childhood Tash never had, which makes Tash protective of him.

Small Spaces is a thrilling read with unrelenting suspense. I couldn’t put it down.

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With thanks to Walker Books for providing an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Small Spaces will be published on 01 April.

Review: ‘My Sister Rosa’ by Justine Larbalestier

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Rosa is a ticking time bomb.
I don’t think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding.

My Sister Rosa is a contemporary psychological thriller by Justine Larbalestier. The YA novel is narrated by 17-year-old Che, who has charged himself with preventing his highly intelligent, Shirley Temple-like 10-year-old sister from hurting anyone. Manipulation and lying became a means for Rosa to explore her sinister tendencies, as she is all too aware of the protection her age and doll-like looks gives her. The parentals, David and Sally, are dismissive of Che’s warnings and accusations in part because they’re preoccupied by their own relationship and hectic business dealings, but also because they believe Rosa is merely a rambunctious 10-year-old girl. When their parents move them overseas yet again, this time to New York City, Che must find a way to contain Rosa in a new environment while also getting some degree of control over his own life.

My Sister Rosa is not solely reliant on the constant presence of a singular psychotic character in order to build and maintain suspense. My Sister Rosa exudes impending and inevitable destruction throughout, which is largely achieved through the way the novel is structured, as well as the overarching theme of control.  The novel is divided into four parts, determined by the list of goals (p25) Che writes every time he is forced to move to a new place:

  1. Keep Rosa under control
  2. I want to spar
  3. I want a girlfriend
  4. I want to go home.

The goals offer some degree of comfort as they are the only consistency Che has. While Rosa has no sense of boundaries and no purpose in her destructive tendencies other than for its own sake, Che relies on boundaries in order to feel some sense of control over his own life and to ensure he is prepared if Rosa brings about a cataclysmic event. While the goals offer comfort, they also leave him frustrated and angry because of his inability to achieve any of them. Che tries to counteract the sense of powerlessness he feels within his family by boxing. Training allows him to lose himself within the momentum and technique, but even that freedom is restricted, as he has promised his parents he won’t progress to sparring.

The first person narrative adds to the tension, as while Che strives to uphold himself as the good son and protector, he is still a fallible human being in desperate search of an identity independent of Rosa. When Che moves outside his own boundaries, or those set by his parents, it not only causes his parents to question is reliability, it also raises the possibility that Che may be an unreliable narrator, which adds another layer of depth and deception.

The only jarring aspect of the novel takes place in Chapter 25. I don’t want to post any spoilers here, so I will only say that the event that happens at the end of Chapter 24 is at odds with what happens at the start of Chapter 26, and at the start of Chapter 27. I’m really keen to discuss this, but don’t want to ruin the book. Please PM me your theories!

My Sister Rosa answers the call for more diversity in YA through the inclusion of people of various ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender identity and sexual orientation. Larbalestier creates these characters without reducing them to a stereotype or trope, arguably because the diversity is not presented as a point of contention. There are sexual references and drug scenes, but there isn’t a hint of gratuity or moral questioning. Rosa’s psychopathic nature is presented in an understated way, as she is depicted as an inquisitive individual who ponders about inflicting pain or death, and any accompanying threat is an indirect afterthought.

My Sister Rosa is an unnerving and thrilling read. With a great mix of characters and an unrelenting sense of impending destruction, the greatest challenge when reading this book was not to devour it all in one sitting. The story stayed with me long after I put the novel down.

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With thanks to Dymocks for the pre-release copy.

 

Review: Gone Girl

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‘You think you’re reading a good, conventional thriller, and then it grows into a fascinating portrait of one averagely mismatched relationship.’ – The Times.

The Times review almost fully encapsulates why I enjoyed reading this book. 

Gone Girl is a captivating read, told in first person via the musings of Nick Dunne and via the diary of his wife, Amy. 

The benefit of a first person narrator is the directness of the narration; a story that isn’t bogged down by exposition or mind-numbing similes, metaphors, etc.

I love reading books containing unreliable narrators (‘Fight Club’ is still my favourite, closely followed by ‘Alias Grace’), and it made reading Gone Girl all the more enjoyable.

The ending was quite frustrating – with so many strong-willed characters, I was expecting a grand finale of sorts. Still, as other reviewers have sorted out, it does stay true to the overall feel of the story, rather than feeling like a cop-out.