By Sean Olin, $26.00
Newly released Young Adult novel Brother/Sister is the story of Will and Asheley, two teenage siblings with an alcoholic mother and an absentee father. A psychological thriller, it puts the reader on edge, constantly guessing what the truth is, and which characters are in danger – or dangerous. Although the framework of the novel is initially distracting, with a few unbelievable components, the dramatic action of the story quickly envelops the reader, resulting in a tale that is compelling, complex, and surprising at all the right moments.
The premise of the narration, police interviewing Will and Asheley about the murder of Asheley’s boyfriend, is rather contrived. You can’t help but feel that a police detective would have little interest in the level of detail the siblings provide about their lives. Also, when Will and Asheley’s mother gets carted away to rehab, it’s inconceivable that California’s Child Protective Services don’t become involved. However, once you suspend your disbelief about how alone in the world Will and Asheley are, it is incredibly easy to become entranced by the psychological complexity of Brother/Sister. The drama of the novel centres on Will’s mental well being, or lack thereof. Within the first ten pages he admits to killing Asheley’s boyfriend. From this point on, the real saga of the novel is Will’s evolving psychological state.
Throughout Brother/Sister, it’s easy to be less concerned about what is happening to the people Will hurts, and more concerned about figuring out what kind of disorder he has, if any. At various points he appears somewhat autistic, at other times bipolar, and intermittently outright psychotic. The trick author Sean Olin plays is making the reader jump between believing these possible diagnoses and thinking that maybe Will is just a boy who has been affected by growing up in a terrible home situation. At the same time that you are struggling with this issue, the other half of your brain is trying to sort out how Will views his relationship with Asheley. It’s obvious from the start that there is something inappropriate, or at least unconventional, about his affection for his sister, but as the reader is constrained to what Will and Asheley are each willing to say about it, you’re forced to put together an image from patchwork scraps. The piecemeal nature of the narrative’s revelations makes the novel’s psychological puzzles fantastically engrossing, as you wait to see if Will is going to completely flip out, or turn out to be fairly normal after all. The inconsistencies between Will and Asheley’s versions of the story serve to further heighten this feeling.
In the midst of its psychological drama, Brother/Sister also captures the social confusion of high school; of trying to navigate in a group of people who you suspect only sort of understand you. Asheley is presented as the normal teen caught in abnormal circumstances. Mired in her co-dependent relationship with her brother, Asheley also deals with the same issues that many teen girls are exposed to, like a boyfriend who can be a bit too pushy and hands-y, and the hazards of trying to break into a popular group of friends who, in the end, probably don’t deserve the effort. With the juxtaposition of Asheley and Will as narrators, you get to experience not only the thriller side of the story, but also connection to a character who is absolutely relatable, an outsider itching to get in, on most levels just trying to make it through what life is throwing at her.
Another prevalent theme of the novel is the fantasies that we build around the people we love. For Asheley, the object of fantasy is her absent father. She really wants to believe that even though he left when she was a toddler, he still loves her and cares what is happening to her, that someday he will come and rescue her and her brother from their broken lives. For Will, the object is Asheley, her innocence and naiveté, her desire to see only the good in people, his need to protect these qualities, to keep her safe from the evil intentions of others. Both Asheley and Will let these fantasies drive their thoughts and actions, leaving them open to manipulation as they wrap themselves up in a world that, to some degree, isn’t real. The compelling portrayal of these fantasies leaves the reader wondering how accurate their own understanding of other people is. In the end, Brother/Sister is a novel that uses dramatic tension and complex characters to make the reader examine his or her own psychological profile.
Throughout the novel Olin’s writing style does everything it should. The voices of the teenage characters are believable and the narration proceeds in a seamless flow, even when switching perspective. The result is total immersion. Like a feedback loop, the story’s action keeps driving you forward, grasping for the answers that surely must lie just on the far leaf of the next page turn.