Sister of Mine is a psychological thriller that explores the relationship between Hattie and Penny Grayson – sisters whose bond will be tested to the limit by the threat of having their deepest, darkest secret exposed. This is Petrou’s debut novel, first published by No Exit Press in 2019 and now reissued by Verve Books in the wake of the author’s successful 2022 novel, Stargazer.

The townsfolk of St Margarets have always been wary of the Grayson sisters. From an early age their lives were blighted by tragedy and perhaps the locals fear some of that misfortune will rub off on them. They were seen as unruly children with a reputation for being a bit wild. Their father vanished one Sunday in July when they were small and their relationship with their mother turned fraught until the day she died, leaving them completely alone.

Rather than empathy, the Grayson girls received stares, teasing and gossip. Mrs Walker, the Sunday School teacher, was wicked to them. Little Hattie, the innocent one, got the brunt of it, made to work harder than the other children, her ‘chores for God’.

Now as adults the Graysons keep to themselves, more so than ever after the fatal fire that leads us into their story – a blazing inferno in the dead of night. As the house explodes into flames and the windows shatter, a woman watches, waiting long enough to see the building engulfed with a man trapped inside. Relieved that she finally did it, all it took was a match, she flees as the sirens wail in the distance. 

The woman runs through the trees toward her sister, asleep in a house across the woods. When she gets there she acts as if she knows nothing about the conflagration; they will both pretend. No one must ever know and it looks like their secret will be safe because the investigation concludes that the fire was a tragic accident.

Penny and Hattie are chalk and cheese but they have always stuck together in adversity. Even though it’s always been them against the world, now more than ever they need each other. The man who died was cruel. It was a side to Buddy Collerfield’s character that didn’t emerge until he married Penny Grayson. The isolation after their mother’s death lasted until the day Buddy walked into the bookshop where Penny worked and swept her off her feet. Buddy oozed charm but turned out to be far from the romantic hero.

After the fire Penny and Hattie share a home again. They avoid people but time passes and the sisters begin to relax back into a somewhat normal life. Perhaps there can be friendships, even romance, for them, as long as that secret is intact. When a new teacher comes to town, he doesn’t prejudge the sisters and Penny befriends James Leung while Hattie begins to fall from him too.

Then, a year after the fire, Hattie allows police officer Iain Moore to bring her home from town one day. It’s clear he’s sweet on her and it’s obvious Hattie likes Iain too. Life must move on but Penny is concerned by this closeness. She lectures Hattie on the dangers of dating the man who investigated the fire – one slip of the tongue could sink them. Hattie knows her sister is right but she has needs too and feels they both deserve some joy in life instead of wallowing in guilt and resentment. Things are about to get complicated in the relationship between him and the two women. Is their secret safe?

All of this takes place in St Margaret’s, a small backwater town somewhere in Canada. Petrou plays on how crime and secrets seem more sinister in a close-knit community, whereas crime in a big city is more anonymous. Everybody knows everybody else… but do they really? And why is it that people who know the darkest secrets about their neighbours still turn a blind eye when things go wrong? However this isn’t the sole focus of the book. At the heart its heart are the two sisters, their unbreakable bonds and fierce rivalry.

It’s a well crafted story, we feel the love and the strain in the relationship between the Hattie and Penny. This fascinating portrait of the the sisters is the book’s great strength. It’s so beautifully drawn and even though it’s tough at times the story is always insightful. Petrou balances love, jealousy, rivalry, sacrifice, grief, betrayal and the corrosive impact of a dark secret weighing on the women. More than anything this drives the novel and keeps us engaged.

We think we know what happened the night of the fire but there’s a twist that gives the tale more depth, though many a canny reader will see it coming. Sister of Mine is tense and tightly plotted and the small town mentality adds to the claustrophobic air. This is a compassionate story of the things that bind us together at the worst of times, exploring what we would do for each other faced with terrible choices. The crime itself is not the focus so much as its effects – how a lifetime of guilt, loss, grief and betrayal can effect us.

Verve Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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