Written by Annemarie Neary — After her debut thriller Siren blended together crime, politics and history, Annemarie Neary once again defies genre and expectations, this time with a novel about family, loss, grief and obsession. Crimes do take place, but this book isn’t one that brings you the investigative process or a chronicle of justice. Like another recent suspense novel, Exquisite, The Orphans will appeal even if you are not a hardened crime fiction fanatic. The emphasis here is on the characters’ suffering, and how they survive and finally grow in spite of it.
Jess Considine was only eight and her brother Sparrow was even younger when their parents inexplicably abandoned them on a beach in Goa in 1992. For a brief period, the tabloids were enamoured of ‘the little orphans’. Then the media circus died down and the children returned to Britain to live with their aunt.
Fast forward to the present day and each of them has dealt with the trauma in their own way. Jess has shut off her emotions and memories. She is a corporate lawyer living with her husband, children and au pair in a house on Clapham Common. She is not happy at work and is being harassed by a new colleague, but she puts up with things so that she can keep up the mortgage repayments and maintain the lifestyle which she has so painstakingly created for herself and her family.
By way of contrast, her brother has never found closure. Sparrow remains firmly convinced that their mother is alive and has spent all of his life looking for her, travelling to reported sightings throughout the world. The latest one was in his mother’s home town in Ireland, so he believes this time it might be the real thing. However, when he gets there he sets a process in motion which will have tragic consequences for both siblings. When their mother’s passport turns up out of the blue, Sparrow shows up at Jess’ house, convinced that she knows more than she is saying. And that’s when events really spiral out of control…
The relationship between Jess and Sparrow is described with great finesse, a mix of exasperation and rivalry, but also mutual dependence and guilt for not being able to protect each other in the aftermath of the great tragedy. Their responses to trauma are very different, but they have both been equally marked by their loss and even Jess has not moved on as much as she would like to believe. As events take on a sinister turn, it becomes clear that Sparrow’s obsession and Jess’ repression are two sides of the same coin. But will Jess help her brother even when he is wanted by the police? Even if she starts to suspect he might be involved in murder?
While the two main characters are very well-grounded psychologically and we are left with a strong impression of the kind of person their mother might have been, some of the secondary figures are a little flat in comparison. The husband’s secret is a little too predictable, as is the reaction of the ambitious and nasty colleague at work. Neither the old family friend Eddie nor the barista at the local cafe who takes pity on Sparrow really jump off the page. Nevertheless, it is a well-written book with a mystery that touches upon many heartbreaking themes: bad parenting, negligence, the need for belonging, guilt and redemption. I also appreciated the more conventional structure of the novel. After the opening scene set in Goa in 1992, there are no attempts to forcefully alternate between past and present, or deliberately hide evidence. The book needs no such gimmicks. It is a touching story, beautifully told.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars