Review by Linda Hepworth
Published by: Corvus 3rd June 2021
ISBN: 978-1-83895-195-5 Paperback
Although twins Summer and Iris Carmichael appear to be identical, in fact they are ‘mirror-twins’, mirror images of each other. As Iris reflects in the prologue – ‘The minute asymmetries in my sister’s face – her fuller right cheek, her higher right cheekbone – are reproduced on my face on the left side. Other people can’t tell the difference, but when I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself, I see Summer.’ However, it’s not just their outer appearances which are mirrored because, as the egg split so late (any later and they would have been conjoined), all of Iris’s internal organs are on the wrong side of her body … ‘Inside Summer, though, everything was as it should be. Summer was perfect.’ This theme of being the same but different is one which, in many guises, runs through this psychological thriller.
The twins’ father, ruthless, self-made multi-millionaire Ridge Carmichael, had grown up in the care system, knowing almost nothing about his background other than that one of his ancestors had been transported for stealing a beer glass from an English pub. He put off having children until he’d made his fortune, by which time his first wife was too old so, desperate to create a dynasty, he divorced her, married the much younger Annabeth and the twins were conceived on their parents’ honeymoon. A son, Ben, followed but when Annabeth refused to have any further children, she too was ditched and, quickly marrying again he went on to have four daughters with his third wife. However, it wasn’t until he died unexpectedly (when Summer and Iris were fourteen) and the conditions of his will were discovered, that anyone fully understood the full extent of his dynastic ambitions, his need to ensure that his family name would never die out and that his hundred million dollar fortune would be kept intact for future generations. Instead of dividing his estate equally between his seven children, he bequeathed it to the first to produce a legitimate heir and give his first grandchild the Carmichael name.
Summer immediately declares that she doesn’t care about the money, she’ll only marry for love but Iris, recalling her father’s oft-repeated mantra ‘nice is dumb’, hopes that her sister will indeed take her time because, as far as she’s concerned, the race is on. However, as the story starts the twins are twenty three, Summer is married to widower Adam, stepmother to his toddler son, Tarquin, and is a few weeks pregnant but Iris has recently separated from her husband, Noah, after failing to become pregnant. So, once again it appears that Summer has it all … until a freak accident at sea offers Iris the opportunity to step into her sister’s shoes and live her twin’s charmed life.
I think many people are fascinated by the notion of doppelgängers and, more specifically, the relationship between identical twins, especially the idea that they are able to switch identities to fool other people. It is this attempt to successfully pass-off as the ‘other’ which is central to Rose Carlyle’s debut novel about sibling rivalry, dysfunctional family dynamics, multi-faceted duplicity, envy, jealousy, greed, secrets and lies. From the start I realised that I would need to be able to suspend disbelief in order to remain engaged with the developing story and in the early, scene-setting stages this wasn’t too hard to do. However, once the switch had taken place, I found it increasingly difficult because too many of the scenarios described bordered on the farcical, stretching my credulity just that bit too far. Also, as I found myself anticipating many of the twists, turns and ‘revelations’ in the plotting, the story lacked the satisfying tension I look for in a psychological thriller.
I found it hard to summon up much empathy with any of the flawed, often disagreeable characters. This was not because they were flawed and disagreeable, in fact such characters often make the psychological integrity of a story much more interesting and convincing, instead it was because almost all felt rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. However, I did gradually find myself feeling some sympathy with Iris as she struggled with her conflicting feelings about taking over her sister’s ‘charmed’ life, possibly because her first-person narrative lent itself to adding some layers of depth to their complex and conflicted shared history. Nevertheless, the only character I truly warmed to was Ben, whose voice wasn’t heard until almost the end of the story but whose reflections on the dynamics of his sisters’ relationship added some interesting insights.
I found the descriptions of the BDSM aspects of the sexual behaviour initiated by Adam in his relationship with Iris to be rather disturbing, not only did they feel gratuitously explicit but his expression ‘sexyrape’ felt particularly worrisome. Although on an intellectual level I was able to recognise the context within which the author was using the expression, I think she could have conveyed the dynamic interaction without using such an emotionally-charged word.
To end on a more positive level, it was clear from her evocative descriptions of Iris’s passion for sailing, as well as the detailed accounts of the twins’ journey from Thailand to Australia, that the author is an experienced sailor. Although I have no experience of sailing, I do think she used her considerable knowledge in ways which added a very visual dimension to her storytelling. I’m aware that the movie rights to this story have been sold and can imagine that a film would probably generate the sort of escalating tension I’d been hoping to experience as a reader.