This novel tells the story of twin sisters Hephzibah and Rebecca. Hephzi is described as being beautiful, whilst Rebecca is disfigured. Their lives are desperately unhappy, with cruel, uncaring parents. The twins are desperate for love, and it is hard for them to cope under the circumstances within their family. Their mother is weak, unemotional and submissive, whilst their vicar father is verbally and physically abusive towards them, and they suffer terrible abuse and cruelty at his hands. This creates a tragic situation, where the girls feel trapped by him. When Hephzi tragically dies, Rebecca must somehow try and find a way to get herself out, away from The Father and The Mother, as she referrs to them. But it won't be easy. The girls have been educated, if it may be called that, at home by their mother, and 'her specialist subject was misery.' Somehow they manage to persuade their mother to insist to their father that they be allowed to attend college, and then they are faced with trying to fit in in this new and unknown 'normal' world. Hephzi copes much better with this than Rebecca.
In the first part of the book, the narration is taken up by Hephzi before her death, and by Rebecca after Hephzi has died, with the chapters alternating between these two perspectives. This is a great way of telling the story, gradually revealing significant moments from both girls lives', and gradually revealing the different characters to the reader. We learn from Hephzi how she strove to establish some sense of normality, making friends, beginning to take part in social activities when and where she could. Rebecca gives us an insight into how Hephzi's death has changed things, and how terribly trapped and alone she now feels. She alone takes up the story in part two.
On the day of her sister's funeral, Rebecca writes: 'I've recorded today as another black day and it's there, a story inscribed hard on my heart. The tales I keep hidden within are many; if you ever open me up then you'll read the proof. Look inside, peel back skin and flesh and bone, and there you'll find a library of pain...some things are too terrible to tell and those words are buried deep.'
Only their grandmother offered kindness: 'Our twelfth birthday. Hers were the only presents we received; hers was the only kiss, the only smile, the only laughter.'
The language vividly conjures the mindset and dark, unhappy feelings in Rebecca's heart at some of her lowest moments: 'The week faded, grey and black and brown. The sky outside the window was concrete, as hard as heartbreak. I wondered where the summer had gone; perhaps the sun had died too.'
This is an absorbing but at times immensely sad and truly heartbreaking tale; at times there is horrendous treatment. I felt deeply angry and sad at times, yet I know that cruel behaviour like the mental and physical torment depicted here can and does go on in the real world.
The narrative voice is captivating throughout. The author is perceptive and demonstrates the determination and power of the human spirit in the face of cruelty and repression; the story is not without hope. It's an incredibly powerful and emotional story. I read it over the course of one day in only a couple of sittings because it grabbed hold of me so strongly. This is a book I keep thinking about.
Published by Penguin and Puffin.
You can follow the author on twitter @louisareid and on facebook LouisaHRReid and visit her website here to find out more about her and the book.
Reviewed for amazon vine.