Why I Have Mixed Feelings About The Good Sister

Fern Castle works in her local library. She has dinner with her twin sister Rose three nights a week. And she avoids crowds, bright lights and loud noises as much as possible. Fern has a carefully structured life and disrupting her routine can be . . . dangerous.

When Rose discovers that she cannot fall pregnant, Fern sees her chance to pay her sister back for everything Rose has done for her. Fern can have a baby for Rose. She just needs to find a father. Simple.

Topics covered in this post includes autism, mental health diagnoses, child and sexual abuse, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Spoilers ahead!

My general impression: good

As a psychological thriller, The Good Sister is excellent. Told alternatingly in the point of views of Fern and Rose, Sally Hepworth uses the unreliable narrator well: there were moments where I went ‘hang on, that doesn’t line up with what the other sister said’. The pacing is great: you can feel the sense of foreboding building. I was very much metaphorically peeking through my fingers towards the end. I am likely to pick up another Sally Hepworth book in the future.

The representation of autism: great

Fern is obviously autistic. She can be very literal in her social exchanges. She finds it difficult to understand social norms or people’s facial expressions. She has a strict routine, and deviating from it makes her very uncomfortable. She has sensory sensitivities. Her love interest is also on the spectrum, though it presents in different ways to Fern’s autism. This is excellent representation. Autism is like the colour spectrum: if you know one person on the spectrum, you only know that one person.

As the story unfolds, Fern finds that there are people who are accepting of her and willing to accommodate her and support her needs. This is lovely, and it sends a great message that autistic people can be accepted for who they are, and the people around them should take the time to understand them.

Autism was never explicitly named. Fern was never taken for an assessment as a child, and while Wally (the love interest) identifies that they’re similar, he never named a diagnosis either. Sally Hepworth has spoken about writing Fern based on her experiences with her neurodiverse children and why she chose to not name the diagnosis. Her reasons are valid, and it is clear in the book that Fern is written from a compassionate place. In that area, she’s done a good job.

The issue with labelling Rose

Rose’s point of view is a journal ostensibly written for her therapist, about her and Fern’s childhood with a narcissistic mother who would withhold love or proper care at any moment, about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and about how she protected Fern from social misunderstandings or their mother’s wraths. She hinted that Fern is dangerous, unfeeling, and at one stage claimed Fern has an intellectual disability. She claimed that Fern drowned a boy due to jealousy, and Rose covered it up for Fern’s sake.

Here’s the twist: Rose is the unreliable narrator. We learn later that most of what Rose wrote is false: their mother was never abusive, but Rose always felt that she didn’t love her enough, or preferred Fern over her. Rose orchestrated the drowning of the boy, jealous that he picked Fern over her. (The sexual abuse, though, is most likely true). In the present, everything she does that is supposedly for Fern’s sake is really her way of manipulating and controlling Fern. She even attempted to (and later successfully) murder their mother.

That is all fine – there are people like this in fiction and real life. Villains obviously have a place in great stories. What gave me pause was a conversation between Fern and Rose’s ex-husband. Rose’s ex-husband tells Fern that he’s been in therapy, and while his therapist would not diagnose Rose because they have never met, they suggested that Rose may have borderline or narcissistic traits.

I don’t really take issue with the fictional therapist: it can happen when a therapist is trying to help their client understands someone in their life, and a caveat was given. Still, it’s in the book; the reader is meant to link Rose’s presentation to borderline or narcissistic personality disorders. This gave me pause because these disorders are often stigmatised. This book leans into those stereotypes: not only is Rose manipulative and seems generally uncaring about needs other than her own, she is shown as remorseless. The book ends with Rose writing another diary in prison, attempting to frame Fern for their mother’s murder.

The bottom line

Sally Hepworth has also spoken about doing research into borderline personality disorder and narcissism in an interview. I can see some of that in her writing of Rose, but personality disorders can be diverse too. There are a wide range of symptoms and impacts on people’s lives associated with these disorders. We need more emphatic representations of them too. That unfortunately doesn’t happen in this book.

Due to her role as the unreliable narrator, we know very little about what really goes on in her head, or what shaped her to be the person that she is. The effect for me is this: Fern is a complex character with a rich inner life, whose autism is the least interesting part of her story. Rose is the villain, probably because of borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. The good sister isn’t labelled, but the bad sister is.

Explicitly naming a diagnosis in fiction can be a good thing. Paired with good representation, it can help reduce stigma. On the other hand, it can reinforce harmful stereotypes. I wish Rose was given more complexity, not just a diagnosis to explain her choices.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

~ Priscilla

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