Review of My Sister and Other Liars, by Ruth Dugdall


The setting of My Sister & Other Liars immensely attracted me: Ipswich, Felixstowe, the Orwell brought back many happy memories of sailing with the East Anglian Offshore Racing Association. Unfortunately, here Orwell does not signify a river leading to Pin Mill, but a nasty estate full off very low lives. I vaguely recalled from The Sacrificial Man (which dealt with sacred cannibalism) that Ruth Dugdall seems oblivious to the spirituality of the subjects on which she bases her stories. In this case the principal character & narrator, Sam (Samantha) is confined to a treatment facility for anorexia. That makes this novel a member of the genre I call “the Bell Jars” after the most-read (but not the best) example of the genre. The main character, usually a girl or young woman, is diagnosed with _________ (fill in the blank: anorexia, depression, suicidal ideation, less often drug or ETOH addiction, never morbid obesity – too gross!). I tend to sympathise with the patient against the staff who are treating her, who usually are total materialists who believe her problem is “an eating disorder” & use behaviouristic methods (“If you cooperate & answer my questions, you’ll be allowed to ____________ (watch television, ride a pony, eat an apple), but if you remain recalcitrant we’ll pour 500 ml of hi-calorie glop into your feeding tube”). As if a good reason for living were to watch television or eat apples. Fortunately here Clive the “psychiatrist” is largely a prop to give Sam an audience to narrate the backstory. (As he’s overweight and smokes a pipe, I can’t see why he shouldn’t be confined to a treatment facility, put on a slimming regimen and hooked up to a nicotine patch.) That backstory is the real plot of the book & involves the sister in the title, who was attacked, resulting in GBH, specifically brain injury. Sam witnessed the attack, but cannot recall the identity of the perpetrator either. About 1/3 the way in we discover that Sam not confined simply for anorexia, but has herself committed a crime somehow related to Jena’s condition. As the story unfolds, gradually the fiction of Sam’s narrating the story to Clive drops away, & the focus becomes what happened to Jena, why, & the secret her family is hiding. At the 55-percent mark I figured out the secret.  Having another 200-something miles to drive, I had to go through the rest of the dismal parade of exonerating the red herrings to get to the actual perp. They might as well have been named Red Herring, Ginger Herring, & Real Villain, for all the suspense the story generated henceforward. In this kind of mystery story, the main suspect @ 1/2-way is never the bad hat, the 4/5 suspect can be an accomplice but never the chief malefactor, who will be unmasked in the final pages.

Enjoyed the parts where Sam is supposed to be an anorexic resisting “treatment.” Like some forms of alcohol & drug addiction, anorexia seems truly a species of misplaced spirituality, which in the Middle Ages would have got shrines set up to honour the “victims” who would have been seen as immensely holy people who are attempting to make their physical grossness melt into pure spirit. I suspect the cure lies in replacing false spirituality the real thing, holiness not pony rides.

The author’s Humber Boy B was formerly on my TBR, but I doubt Dugdall has the insight to deal with the questions of guilt & absolution the subject deserves. But I should say that I liked two things about My Sister & Other Liars. It is the 1st English mystery I’ve read featuring a Tokarev pistol (tho’ the account of how acquired rang hollow) & I thought Henrietta Mieres’ narrative voice was brilliant. That glottal stop where “photo” sounds like “faux-eau” & “better” like “beh-ah” that infects the “Orwell Estate” was beautifully reproduced.

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