Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From the Archives: The Sister

[JP note: I just uncovered a treasure trove: my old copies of The New Jersey Graveline, the newsletter of the Garden State Horror Writers. I wrote a few hundred articles for this newsletter over the years, and editing it helped fast-track me to the life of professional editing and writing. Scanning the old issues is a bear (the electronic files are long-since gone), but not impossible, so I'll be posting select articles and reviews from time to time. Here's the first.]

by Elleston Trevor
Tor/Forge, HC, $20.95
ISBN 0-312-85555-9

Originally published in The New Jersey Graveline, April 1994

I wanted to like THE SISTER. Really, I did. Elleston Trevor has a gift for description that, at its best, could place him near the top of a very short list of talented suspense authors.

Unfortunately, the plot, setting and characters in THE SISTER are so bad that, ultimately, the book is almost unreadable.

THE SISTER concerns Debra and Madlen Felker, two sisters who flee uncaring parents and a dangerous school system and enter a convent, the Sisters of the Sacred Light. Once there, however, it becomes evident that Madlen, who professes to love her younger -- adopted -- sister, is actually trying to kill her.

Now, since Debra and Madlen are the central characters of THE SISTER, it is a tragedy that they are as poorly drawn as they are. Their personalities change chapter by chapter, their actions (especially Madlen's) are impossible to believe, and their dialogue is wooden and forced. In fact, when we are first introduced to the sisters at the beginning of the book, Trevor's use of the characters is so uneven, they seem to be anywhere from ten years old to eighteen, depending on what paragraph you are reading.

It is this earliest part of the book -- the first 50 pages -- that are the weakest in THE SISTER. Trevor's portrait of the Felker family is unbelievable, and the parents lack any sense of being fully-drawn characters. And when we see the high school the girls attend, it seems as if Trevor has not set foot in a high school, let alone talked to a teenager, in several decades. Since we are expected to believe that Debra and Madlen want to become nuns to escape from the violence in their school and the anger of their parents, Trevor's failure to make that world believable makes the sisters' actions forced and unreal.

The book doesn't stay this bad, though -- although throughout THE SISTER the book is flawed by serious logic problems and poor dialogue. At some points, Trevor's skill at description comes close to actually saving the book. Look at this paragraph, from the end of chapter 4, as Debra and Madlen leave the outside world and enter the convent:

"The only sound now was their footsteps, and Debra felt the urge to turn and run back into the warmth of the sunshine out there while she had the chance, but the great doors slammed shut suddenly, sending echoes thudding along the walls, and the bell in the tower Slopped ringing at last, and a deep silence fell."

That's great stuff, very evocative and moody. There's bits and pieces of that scattered throughout THE SISTER, and there is one great three-chapter section where Debra is trapped in the darkness of secret passageways underneath the convent, but it just isn't enough.

Unfortunately, the only way to recommend THE SISTER is as an example of a book that failed, but has a few moments of brilliance struggling to shine through.

No comments: