My name is Irini. I was given away.
My name is Elle. I was kept.
All her life Irini thought she was given away because her family didn’t want her. What if the truth is something much worse?
Two sisters. Two separate lives.
One family bound by a harrowing secret.
As the title suggests, Adams’ debut novel is about two sisters, Irini and her older sister Elle Harringford who were separated when Irini was three years old. Their parents kept Elle with them and sent Irini away to live with her aunt and uncle who she knew never wanted her. Irini never knew her parents and never understood why they sent her away and refused to have any contact with her. But when Irini’s mother dies, she is forced to return to the family home and is determined to find out what happened all those years ago.
Unbeknownst to their parents, aunt, and uncle, Irini and Elle were in contact as they grew up and both soon knew that they were very different. Irini was always quiet, responsible, and became an anaesthetist in London where she lives with her boyfriend. Elle, on the other hand, remained living at home with her parents and is wild, impulsive, and very manipulative. As the book progresses, we find out many of the things she did to Irini when they were growing up, each of which caused Irini to run from her sister. Because of these things, Irini tried to stay away from her sister as much as she could because she considers her highly dangerous but Elle always tracked her down. Elle’s constant hounding of her sister makes us wonder what she knows about why Irini was sent away. As the book’s narrator, Irini never seems certain of Elle’s, or anyone else’s, motives and is suspicious of everyone.
The setting of the novel in Scotland evokes the best of gothic literature as the sisters’ family home is described as a large, dark house, filled with shadows and rooms not used in decades and covered in a film of webs and dust. Adams uses the gothic in the same way as Henry James uses it in Turn of the Screw or, more recently, Gillian Flynn in Sharp Objects, to evoke the ghosts and secrets of the past and project it as a festering, decaying setting in which a family is dying. And like these gothic tales, Adams examines how different members of a family can play very different roles in the decay of a family. Although her mother has died, Irini is keen to know what part she played in giving her away and if she ever regretted it. And she is also determined to unravel the web of lies and secrets that has been built up all around her her whole life. Hereditary (2018) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018) which I watched recently both also warn of the dangers of family secrets and how they can spill out into the everyday lives of family members and ruin family relationships.
It’s clear that both sisters are very damaged. Irini has a physical disability, the origin of which she never understood and, because of this and her family’s abandonment of her, she is very insecure and finds it hard to trust anyone. She’s convinced her Spanish boyfriend Antonio is only with her for her money. On the other hand, Elle is renowned for her beauty and for her outgoing and flirty nature but, as the book goes on, we find out that she is highly psychologically damaged and psychotic, and demonstrates that our relationship with our family can often be toxic. Yet, although it may be toxic, we are still drawn to it. One of the most striking things about the book is the complex relationship between the two sisters, which is ultimately the most realistic aspect of the book. Although the events of the book are certainly not realistic, with its many twists and surprises, it is the complexity of their relationship that is the driving force of the book. Several people question Irini’s choice to let Elle back into her life each time but Irini doesn’t even understand the relationship herself.
Adams’ impressive debut, which was published as If You Knew my Sister in the US, is a complex examination of familial relationships and, although it is often frustrating to read, it is also hugely satisfying.
About the author
Michelle Adams grew up in the UK and now lives in Cyprus, where she works as a part-time scientist. She read her first Stephen King novel at the tender age of nine, and has been addicted to suspense fiction ever since. MY SISTER is her first novel.