Worthy second effort spins a tragedy

Rachel Gurney reviews THe Half Sister, by Catherine Chanter. Published by Allen & Unwin/Canongate.

Three years ago I reviewed Catherine Chanter’s first novel, The Well, and it was my pick of 2015. I hoped she could follow up with a book of similar quality.

Many authors,  such as Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, have a high output and a high standard but it was always going to be a huge ask for Audrey Niffenegger to match The Time Traveler’s Wife. Her Fearful Symmetry just didn’t cut the mustard. And I’m still waiting for a sequel to Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.

Chanter, though, has delivered a first-rate second novel.

The Half Sister begins following the inquest into Valerie Steadman’s death at Wynhope House, home of the Helyarrs: Valerie’s estranged half-sister, Diana, and her husband, Edmund. Diana and Valerie had briefly reunited after the passing of their mother, but Valerie meets her demise on the night of the funeral, after an evening of alcohol and recriminations. Edmund is in London for work, but Valerie’s 9-year-old son, Mikey, is present.

The book looked set to be dominated by  extensive discourses or flashbacks, giving more back story to the tragedy. What follows, however, is the search for truth, the evolution of guilt, and the twisted triangle that ties Diana, Mikey and Edmund.

There are strained relationships, lies, secrets, and misunderstandings, mostly because of miscommunication, or no communication, as Mikey is mute for a while, and then tragedy strikes again. Childhood trauma surfaces for the two adults as Mikey battles his own demons, and there are earthquakes, tsunamis and thunderstorms.

The rural setting provides a major theme. The river — from the epigram in Leonardo da Vinci’s words, through the therapeutic pastime of fishing, to the means of destroying incriminating evidence — "Rivers are good places to wash away the past". Music also features, from the heart-rending La boheme to the uplifting Rivers of Babylon.

Chanter waxes lyrical in one sentence, then quotes a childhood poem, and within a page, gives us the banal, "We are all of us looking for somewhere to dump the shit," as Edmund observes an old man, with a plastic bag, walking a dog.

But mostly she has a delightful turn of phrase: "chestnut trees still dressed for summer", and, "memories clasped in handbags".

The language conveys futility and hope, fragility and strength, and carries us to the promising end. I wonder what her third novel will bring, and when.

- Rachel Gurney is a Dunedin reader

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