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The Winter Sister

Review

The Winter Sister

Thirty-year-old Sylvie O’Leary has a secret. When she was 14, her older sister Persephone was murdered after a fight with her boyfriend. She has spent the ensuing years questioning a split-second decision she made before her sister’s death, convinced that if she had acted differently, Persephone would still be alive.

Sylvie isn’t the only one left reeling from Persephone’s death. After her daughter’s murder, Annie retreats into herself, finding solace in a bottle. Sylvie’s Aunt Jill must step in as a surrogate mother (her father is not in the picture), but she can’t fill the void left by the sudden absence of a mother’s affection. As soon as she graduates from high school, Sylvie flees her hometown. She heads to art school, then makes a living as a tattoo artist. It’s a job she enjoys because “it generated a considerable feeling of power; the tattoo artist…was not only the inflictor of pain, the drawer of blood, but also, on a good day, the fulfiller of dreams.” But when Annie is diagnosed with cancer, Sylvie must return to Spring Hill to care for her ailing parent.

"Fans of Gillian Flynn or Kate Hamer will appreciate THE WINTER SISTER and its exploration of the aftershocks of violence, and the intimate yet often thorny connections between sisters, mothers and daughters."

Megan Collins’ debut draws heavily on the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Like her namesake, Persephone has been snatched away to the Underworld, and, like Demeter, Annie has responded by entering a long, bleak winter. Once vibrant and full of life, she’s now a husk of her former self, fragile and bitter. When she speaks, “her words seemed brittle as dried leaves.” Eventually, her surviving daughter gives up hope that the mother she remembers from her childhood will return. “At a certain point…I’d stopped seeing her as a withered plant that could be watered and sunshined back to life,” Sylvie recalls. “Instead, I’d started seeing the sagging stem of her spine for what it was: a sign that death was rooted within her.”

The landscape of Sylvie’s hometown is equally bleak. As Sylvie sits in her car after a fruitless trip to the police station, she feels “the cold air hardening around me like an ice cube.” The evergreens that border a driveway stand “in lines like soldiers on guard.” The atmosphere is relentlessly frigid, icy and gloomy.

Unsurprisingly, coming back to Spring Hill wakens old demons for Sylvie, especially when she bumps into her sister’s former boyfriend, Ben Emory, who she is convinced killed Persephone. Brimming with righteous anger, she sets to digging into the facts of her sister’s murder. But the things she discovers challenge what she believes, not just about her sister and her death, but also about her mother and herself.

Collins packs plenty of twists into this briskly paced mystery, as Sylvie doggedly investigates the unsolved crime. Though some revelations are predictable (and verging on pulpy), the portrait of a family wracked by grief and consumed by secrets elevates the story above a by-the-numbers thriller. Vivid language packs an emotional punch. In one scene, Sylvie imagines that her mother’s “sobs might split her open, like a stem breaking through layers of darkness and soil into light.” Her voice is “as soothing…as aloe on a burn.”

As a protagonist, Sylvie often infuriates. She is deeply attached to her narrative about what really happened to Persephone and is initially unwilling to consider alternative scenarios --- or understand why the police won’t arrest the man she believes killed her sister, despite an absence of solid evidence. But as a wounded person who has yet to recover from the trauma of losing her sister, she is utterly believable. Her complex, fraught relationship with her mother is equally resonant, especially when Annie reveals a stunning truth that casts the mother-daughter bond in an entirely new light.

Fans of Gillian Flynn or Kate Hamer will appreciate THE WINTER SISTER and its exploration of the aftershocks of violence, and the intimate yet often thorny connections between sisters, mothers and daughters.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on February 8, 2019

The Winter Sister
by Megan Collins

  • Publication Date: February 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982100141
  • ISBN-13: 9781982100148