Little Sister - Isabel Ashdown
Little Sister - Isabel Ashdown ****
Isabel Ashdown's Little Sister is a thriller that pushes all the right buttons of suspicion and paranoia, but for a long time you can't help thinking that it is missing some important detail. That of course can be a positive in a thriller, withholding some information until new facts, new revelations, resurfaced memories and characters come to light or are seen in a different light as the drama develops. The sense of order that has been maintained up until now no longer feels right, something has knocked the world off-kilter and anything that hasn't been built on a solid foundation is going to show cracks. Little Sister certainly demonstrates just how true that is as we get to know its characters and their family backgrounds.
What Little Sister seems to lack however is a sense of urgency over what you would think is the central drama of the crisis: a baby has been abducted, and yet everyone seems to be more concerned with covering up their own failings as parents, lovers and sisters. There's certainly a rush of confusion and terror in the opening pages as Jess awakes from an episode of blackout caused by a long-term medical condition to discover that her sister Emily is shrieking in horror at the disappearance of her child Daisy, who Jess was baby-minding.
As you would expect though, the police operation is covered, with TV appearances and an urgent search and the abduction places a strain on all the members of the family, but as the weeks pass, you begin to wonder whether Emily, her husband James and his 15 year old daughter Chloe from a previous marriage really have their priorities straight. Jess is an observer of how the formerly idyllic family grouping starts to break down, but Jess is not that surprised and not uninvolved either. Like everyone else Jess has had her share of family problems, not least in her sometime difficult relationship as a child with her older sister.
As the search continues, as the press hound the family, and as the weeks pass, the cracks start to show, old memories resurface and suspicions grow over everyone's behaviour. That's exactly what you expect, except you have to wonder whether in an effort to blame and throw suspicion on one person's behaviour and then another, that they (and perhaps the author) have forgotten about the missing baby. No one seems sufficiently concerned as the family members return to their normal daily routines, or as normal as possible. The one thing that has changed now is perspective, as the crisis seems to have awakened paranoid suspicions that lead them to reinterpret unrelated personal slights in the past.
Isabel Ashdown clearly appears to be more interested in exploring the complications involved in troubled family relationships than she is in the mystery of an abducted baby, and it has to be said she does it rather well. There's a mostly convincing backstory here of the sibling rivalry between Emily and Jess that takes into account a whole series of issues relating to being a sister, to being a single woman, a married woman, a second wife. Not enough about being a mother, you might think considering Emily's failings in this area, but it does seem strange to dwell on these matters when fear should be mounting about the fate of a missing baby.
Little by little however, the reason for this becomes clear and it does seem like a calculated intention on the part of the author. There is just enough progress in the police investigation to cast suspicion, uncover lies, break down unreliable alibis in a manner that - with little insights being gained into the past of Emily and Jess - keeps you reading to see where the latest revelations are going to lead. Some of the revelations you can see coming, others take you by surprise, some come seemingly out of nowhere, and there's an epilogue ending that you might consider a twist too far, but them's the rules of the thriller and Little Sister keeps those thrills coming right to the last page.
Little Sister by Isabel Ashdown is published by Trapeze in paperback on the 27th July 2017. It's available in eBook format now.