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What might it mean to have a sister? by Kate Long
2015/08/10  |  By:   |  Features  |  

somethingonl_paperback_147112892x_300At 22, Jen’s still living with her parents, alongside her older sister Helen. Though she’d love to move out, she can’t afford it; she’s only a trainee journalist working for the local newspaper. Helen’s problems, meanwhile, lie elsewhere. Anorexia has haunted her since her teens and left her lacking in confidence and life skills. The family hums with tension and unspoken fears. Then one day, Helen asks her sister to keep a dangerous secret for her. How far will Jen go to protect the people she loves?

Before I could start writing Something Only We Know I had to ask myself this important question: What might it mean to have a sister? It’s a scenario that’s fascinated me for decades because it’s so far out of my own experience. I’m the only child of only children, I don’t even have an aunt, and both my offspring are boys. Sisters have never been part of the equation. But the chief joy of being an author is that you get to play pretend.

So I began by considering other people’s sisters, the ones I’d met in real life and those I’d encountered in fiction. It seemed to me that sisterhood often involved a whole bunch of contradictions – esteem and envy, acceptance and resentment, irritation and consolation. Some of these women might scrap like cat and dog; equally they’d defend each other to the death.

And as I pondered, the characters of Helen and Jen gradually came into focus. I felt they were on friendly terms – loyal, basically kind to each other despite the everyday sniping – yet there was a complex and shaded background. For instance, Helen was thirty, and eight years is practically a generation gap when you’re young. To a ten year-old Jen, Helen at eighteen would have been grown up, sophisticated, remote.

And what would it be like for Jen to have a sister who was really beautiful? I mean stunning, the sort of figure who stops conversation and makes strangers stare? What if people actually called her, within your hearing, The Beautiful One? What did that make you? And then there was her eating disorder. Even if the doctors had classed her as “recovered”, what if she still clung to behaviours that terrifed and distracted your mother, and kept you all on edge?

And what if, on top of everything, you were secretly in love with your sister’s boyfriend, a man who’d been part of your life since you were a little girl and who was the funniest, warmest, smartest guy you’d ever met and you absolutely knew he was the one for you? What on earth would you do then?

Poor Jen. Poor Helen. I put my characters through the mill, I know, but it’s the only way you find out what they’re truly made of. And ultimately Something Only We Know is a celebration of sisterhood, of courage and hope in the face of tough times, and of love.

What’s it like to be a sister? I can’t say, but I suspect you’re lucky if you are one. I’ll just have to carry on imagining.

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