One of my personal highlights from the new Sherlock Holmes episode set in Victorian times (sort of!) was Sherlock telling Watson that the solution to a seemingly impossible murder is ‘never twins’. Yet fiction has always been fascinated by identical twins, and there is no shortage of books exploring the idea of the ‘double’ from all angles. I coincidentally read two recent books on the subject over the past two weeks, both of them labelled ‘psychological thrillers’, although I feel this label does the second book a disservice.
Following the death by accident of one of their twin girls, a couple decided to start afresh with their remaining daughter, Kirstie, in a cottage set on a remote Scottish island surrounded by fog and mudflats. The lack of facilities and isolation are made even worse when Kirstie claims she is her twin sister Lydia. Is it part of the grieving process or is there something more sinister at work?
The setting and premise were interesting and ominous, and there were some unsettling moments reminiscent of a ghost story. The book also asked some good questions: how well do we ever know our own children? How well can we ever protect them? But overall there was a lack of plausibility to the situation, and the domestic drama and dynamics of the couple got on my nerves. The landscape is the real main character of the book for me.
This book will be published this month and is being marketed by Bloomsbury as ‘a compulsive and darkly brilliant psychological thriller about family’. For those expecting dramatic revelations or twists as befits this label, it will feel too slow-paced. Yet it is a thoughtful, well-written book, which goes far deeper into an examination of identity, how we construct our sense of self, how we allow other people’s expectations to shape us and how we fail people with mental health problems.
Helen and Ellie are identical twins, but with very different characters. Helen is the dominant one, often bullying her quieter, slower sister. One day, the girls attempt to trick everyone by swapping clothes and hairstyles to pretend to be the ‘other one’. The prank is successful; however, Ellie enjoys her new position far too much and refuses to swap back. The book looks at the repercussions of this on the life of the two girls, with the former Ellie (now Helen) becoming successful, while the other twin sinks into loneliness and schizophrenia.
This is a very sad but accurate description of dysfunctional families, mental illness and the dangers of parents’ favouritism. Although the twins’ sudden exchange of ‘personalities’ seems a little implausible, it is an interesting comment on how expectations (both good and bad) can influence a growing child, as well as an indictment of the way in which adults refuse to listen properly to children. The book alternates timelines, and sometimes mirrors the confusion in the mind of the main character, but the writing is precise and unflinchingly descriptive, yet avoids a slide into melodrama.