The story begins in Auckland and travels to Melbourne and back. There’s a tight focus that helps to maximise the psychological intensity of character and theme in this unnerving tale. The narrative is shared between four characters: 18-year-old close friends Shane, Eileen, and Will, and their teacher, a Mr N (Mr Nobody? Mr Novitz?). The book is divided into four sections with one character point of view per section. Each is told in the first person present tense with past tense flashbacks. An ambiance of claustrophobia is generated and feeds the tension that serves to make Little Sister an aloof but undeniably creepy thriller.
The next section is named ‘Will’, who is sitting waiting to be interviewed in the police station on the morning after the disturbing event. He rehearses what he will tell them, and in so doing he edits and double-checks his story, including minimising the part where he lied to Shane about the existence of Carla. Will decides that that bit isn’t important and the police won’t need to know it. And when the police do finally come, Will has nothing to say.
Then there’s ‘Eileen’. Her section jumps forward ten years to Melbourne where she is a part-time theatre studies lecturer. A girl follows Eileen and tells her she’s her little sister Carla. But Eileen invented Carla, so she’s fairly freaked out but also gradually reminded of repressed past events and deceits. Eileen is also haunted and obsessed about what Shane did ten years ago at her father’s house on the night of 6 September 2001 (it is tonally significant that this is just a few days before the twin towers came down).
Finally there is the section titled ‘N’. Mr N is the favourite teacher of the three 18-year-olds, and a dubiously inspirational figure. As a point of view character, he comes slightly out of the blue bringing an element of surprise with what he reveals. Little Sister is a short novel in relation to the enormous topics it touches on; while the stop-start way the story unfolds across four points of view, each with a distinct section leaves you wanting more information and more interaction between characters. By the way, the dialogue is set in italics, which I tend to read as thought or emphasis. Slanty conversations look dreamt or imagined, plus you get a stiff neck. But admittedly Little Sister is a page-turner. You want to find sense, connection, and meaning for the dramatic inciting incident into which you are plunged with Shane at the start, and also for the conflict between Eileen’s assertion that she has a sister and what seems to be the reality about that. It would have been good if more could have been made about Eileen’s fantasy world; frustratingly it all just seems to dissolve.
When I reached the end of section ‘Will’ and read on into section ‘Eileen’ I had to stop and regroup for a moment: my expectation of paradigm continuity was scuppered as I was unexpectedly thrust forward ten years into a different place with a different pace, and the point-of-view of a 28-year-old Eileen. Adult Eileen is used as a bridge: she has one foot in her teens back with Shane and Will via her memories, while physically placed ten years on from ‘what happened’; perhaps so that the Carla business can be illuminated and Eileen can take on a linking centrality in the story.
The shifting point-of-view device is usually employed to show an event, object, experience, or person from various sometimes-conflicting perspectives. But the angles that the four sections in Little Sister represent are not different enough, nor are the voices different enough to achieve the intimacy that could have been achieved by this point of view technique.
Eileen in particular and by way of an example, does not strike me as a convincing depiction of an 18 year-old girl who has been repeatedly molested by her father (while he held her down and whispered ‘baby girl’ in her ear). As a teenager she pulls various stunts like going to his house when he’s out and making messy meals and leaving the dishes to punish him… But wow, really? Who, in her situation, would do (only) that? Who would be able to go to his house at all? Her voice is too cool and distant and her diction too clinical – but not pathologically so.
Eileen got through her youth somehow, then went to Melbourne where she has only minor mental lapses that heed the terrible childhood she endured. ‘Everything is not ok. It never has been,’ says adult Eileen to Godfrey (her much older boyfriend), but we don’t really get a proper sense of her not being ok. She also comes across on occasion as a bit arrogant, which doesn’t help her case; she proclaims for example: ‘To cough in a theatre wilfully and maliciously is almost an act of terrorism.’ I wasn’t so keen on that, given that the destruction of the twin towers by terrorists is acknowledged in the book. Suicide bombing and coughing aren’t really on the same level—
Will is the only one in all his cautious, reliable, sensible, and boring ways that ‘comes to life’ in his section; the droll voice suits him well. I wanted to empathise with psychotic Shane and his impulse to do what he does with his samurai sword, but I couldn’t because I don’t feel that his back-story goes far enough towards enabling a sense of how and why he could do what he did. Yes, his parents are neglectful and too rich to care, but it was only when I found out (late in the book) about the terrible central misunderstanding that pushed Shane over the edge that I felt any empathy with him.
Adult Eileen explains Novitz’s own stylistic intentions when she recounts the literary style of her writer boyfriend Godfrey: ‘His novels were based more on the American model (and not the English who-done-it) which placed a heavier emphasis on mood, atmosphere, and the distinct voice of the detective. He told me the mysteries involved in that kind of story could never be solved completely because they always tapped into the dark, central mysteries of life itself: human corruption and moral cowardice.’ It’s a neat and discreet authorial intrusion that re-states Little Sister’s genre. The use of key pieces of repetition helps establish tone, character, and suspense as in the use of Shane’s key phrase, ‘Something has happened’. These are the first three words in the first section, Shane’s section, and are repeated by him often. Then Mr N’s soliloquy at the end of the book finishes with those same three words and we are, importantly, unsure again about who has influenced whom.
TASHA HAINES has a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from Elam at The University of Auckland. She was a lecturer in fine arts and design in Melbourne and Wellington, the manager of a fine art dealer gallery in Auckland, and is now a writer living in Wellington.