by Karen Breen
This is by far my favourite book I’ve reviewed for this site. Sleep Sister is a beautifully written and enthralling debut novel about family, trust, loss and grief.
The novel unravels in a non-linear fashion, with chapters pieced together of poignant vignettes over a 7 year period following the death of the family’s youngest son. Each character’s thoughts and feelings are explored in response to this and other significant developments in their lives caused by the tragedy, particularly the young sisters during their teen years. This structure is sustained masterfully from beginning to end, with Breen maintaining a strong hold on the tension and knowing exactly when and what to explore in the narrative.
Breen’s prose has an almost poetic feel to it, with details and descriptions hitting the right balance between acute observations and flowery language. It is evocative and succinct enough to create the novel’s mood and feeling as early as the first few chapters of the story – for example, using the smell of wallpaper to embody the unfamiliarity of moving in to a new house when the families merge into a new life together as The Duggans. Indeed, Breen’s exquisite observations are so precise that you learn most about the characters through their actions and behaviour rather than dialogue. This is employed expertly right from the beginning, where the awkwardness of the merging families is hinted at by saying the girls “don’t call him Brian, they just think it” in regards to the title they give this sudden father figure in their lives. Such small details show the divide between actions and thoughts and the filtering of our emotions we do in an effort to please others.
Family dynamics is a main subject in the novel, showing how we both react to and are changed by significant events in our lives (particularly difficult moments of loss and grief). In this way, it also touches on the overlapping of behaviour that is learned and instinctive. This is explored in the family’s fractured reactions to Davy’s death (both short and long term), but also in the developing femininity between the sisters and their mother, and how their own relationships with men are both directly and indirectly influenced by watching Lynette. That Breen is able to write about such complex relationships so astutely is alone worth reading the story for.
Sleep Sister is everything a breakout debut novel should be; original, captivating and stirring up excitement for me to read more of Karen Breen’s work in future. I struggle to believe this is a debut novel, as the writer is clearly one who has a natural understanding of language and authentic voices, making writing like Sleep Sister a pleasure to read.
Author: Karen Breen
Publisher: Eunoia Publishing