“But most days, when I heard those words, it took everything I had not to crumple, not to see my fingers locking the bedroom window over and over, the click of the latch echoing in my head.”
I have always wondered what it would be like to have a sister. My imaginations were of a romanticized kind; of late night gossip and giggles, secrets shared under the blanket of darkness. However, all these wonderful images are only one part of the story. For Sylvie in Megan Collins’ The Winter Sister, being her sister’s secret keeper might have led to her death.
Wanting to save her sister Persephone from an abusive boyfriend, Sylvie locks the window that she uses to sneak her way back into the house. The plan was for her to be forced to use the main door, to be found out in her secret relationship, which would cause it to end. But things don’t pan out the way Sylvie hopes. She never sees her sister alive again, and Persephone’s murder is like a tornado that spun itself silly in their family home. It rips apart all these familial relationships, spinning Sylvie’s mother Annie into the comfort of the bottle, leaving Sylvie with a barely functioning mother, no sister, and never able to outrun this moment despite her fervent attempts.
Collins’ prose is so visually stirring that it fills my mind like a well-laboured canvas, which is apt considering Sylvie’s role as an artist. The recurring images of red and snow root me to the snapshot of Persephone’s dead body, refusing to let me forget her, even as I dance in the midst of stars and constellations. Sylvie used to paint over her sister’s bruises, bruises she seemed to sport every time she returned home from a date with the boyfriend. But Persephone’s death is something she can’t paint over. Now, years later at age 30, Sylvie finds herself moving back home to take care of her ailing mother.
“What does a mother feel in her bones when her daughter stops breathing?”
It is fascinating to see a mother like Annie who subverts all maternal expectations. Her children are conceived from flings she never speaks of (though we discover there is more to this later on), and she allows herself to be submerged in the black hole of her grief. There is no attempt to be strong for her remaining daughter and even upon Sylvie’s return, her mom is as unreadable as ever. In a way, Annie’s reading of Wuthering Heights feels very symbolic, seeing as how the way she loves is so madly intense – “like [her] bones are filled with light”. She is not the only one who loves this way; everyone seems to be equally touched by the fervour and desperation of needing to hold on tight to someone, despite the pain and hurt felt in the process.
Sylvie seeks to unpeel the layers, to uncover who her mother was before her Dark days – a phrase Sylvie and Persephone coined because of their mother’s ‘dark’ behaviour on the 15th of every month. It becomes apparent that with each step she takes into her mother’s past, the closer she gets to unravelling the mystery of Persephone’s murder. Collins takes her time to frame the pieces together, so her novel becomes more than just a simple ‘whodunit’. It is a fascinating exploration into the dynamic of female relationships, between sisters, mother and daughters, aunt and niece. However, because of its focus, the men who feature in the story exist in shadows or disappear into the void. They are barely present, and when they are, there really isn’t anything redeeming about them (with the exception of a single character) – definitely nothing to write home about. Regardless, The Winter Sister is a cold, horrific treat, a tad reminiscent of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, but for the most part, Collins’ crafts a niche all her own. This book is for you if murder mysteries or family dramas are your thing, or if you enjoy beautiful prose. Collins’ debut is a contemporary novel with bold, literary strokes – in other words, a rare find.