The Winter Sister by Megan Collins Book Review
Title: The Winter Sister
Author: Megan Collins
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Description: Sixteen years ago, Sylvie’s sister Persephone never came home. Out too late with the boyfriend she was forbidden to see, Persephone was missing for three days before her body was found—and years later, her murder remains unsolved.
In the present day, Sylvie returns home to care for her estranged mother, Annie, as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Prone to unexplained “Dark Days” even before Persephone’s death, Annie’s once-close bond with Sylvie dissolved in the weeks after their loss, making for an uncomfortable reunion all these years later. Worse, Persephone’s former boyfriend, Ben, is now a nurse at the cancer center where Annie is being treated. Sylvie’s always believed Ben was responsible for the murder—but she carries her own guilt about that night, guilt that traps her in the past while the world goes on around her.
As she navigates the complicated relationship with her mother, Sylvie begins to uncover the secrets that fill their house—and what really happened the night Persephone died. As it turns out, the truth really will set you free, once you can bear to look at it.
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POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
Trigger Warnings: Murder, Violence, Alcoholism, Abuse, Cancer
One of the first books that comes to mind when I think of books that have been on my tbr for way too long is The Winter Sister by Megan Collins. It was the very first book I received from book of the month but I had yet to read it - until this month. It chronicles the story of a family still reeling from the unsolved murder of their daughter and sister. The book is an emotional mystery that latches onto the reader unforgettably from the first page
The Winter Sister certainly has the layout of a good mystery down pat. The book starts at points of impact and then builds from there. I find mystery novel authors can be planners first and storytellers second, but I found the opposite to be true for Megan Collins. The way she wove the story was all about the emotion and how she unraveled it - which isn't to say the mystery wasn't immaculately written either. The author brings the smallest of details into significance so every tiny speck of unremarkable passings feels poignant. What could be a very flat, matter-of-fact ordeal is brought into clarity.
Mysteries tend to take a 50,000 foot view of things and lean toward fact-based writing but that is not the case in The Winter Sister. The author zooms into the little moments that scatter the lives of those affected. There's something oddly soul-crushing about finding the tragedy in a contemporary setting. It feels current like the wounds are still fresh. Readers can find it harder to detach themselves from the story.
Seeing the world in the aftermath of Persephone, the sister who is the person that the title references, is the most brutal kind of anguish. You can physically feel the abyss left in the wake of her death like the characters. It is the loss of a daughter. It is the loss of a sister. It is the loss of a human being forged of constellations and disappearance dust. She is so beautifully written to be both a force of nature during her life and a bittersweet memory in the future. Her presence never leaves the story no matter how much time passes.
Megan Collins can take the mundanity of pain in the real world and drives it like a stake through the heart. The lifelike portrayal of existence is where the reader finds the most solemn of truths. It doesn't take extravagance to understand that bone-deep ache of loss like a winter chill. She can take plain moments that any one of us can almost recall in our own memories and turn them into a snapshot of wistfulness and regret.
Grief is treated like an old friend. It is consistent, embracing, and comforting in a way. The author expertly demonstrates the divide in the wake of morning. She expertly carves out scenes with deep chasms that seem uncrossable. There's a delicate quality to the writing of every scene that exposes its vulnerability.
There's a fragile intimacy to the relationships in the book, whether strained or blossoming. The Winter Sister describes the complexities of these relationships. It doesn't paint them in rose-colored glasses, but rather shows how beautiful they in their imperfection. It explores the helpless weakness of even the most profound bonds. It reads as horror for how these relationships, so much like those of anyone, begin to fracture.
It never feels like the mystery is the all-consuming aspect. The fully-fleshed characters are what makes the book great. They are painted in varying shades of fucked up. You almost can't understand the character's logic, but it is logic. You can see the way it, however misguided, shapes them even if it's unfamiliar to you. You may not find yourself represented in the characters' personalities but you will empathize with them despite this. Megan Collins weighs the humanity of each individual as they bottle their guilt and pain - some justified and others not so much.
The Winter Sister has so much heart, no matter what part you're reading. The book isn't necessarily action-packed at the start, but the moments of reflection are what is at the forefront and keeps you reading. You find the soul of it scattered amongst the destruction, melancholic musings, and the resentful present. It lies in the past where Persephone rests and today in the chase to solve what happened way back then. You capture wisps of it in the truths and falsehoods littering the pages.
Whenever I read a contemporary novel, straying outside the fantasies I often find solace in, it rarely takes me long to form an opinion. In the case of The Winter Sister, I was immediately intrigued and optimistic. It gently coaxes the reader into a rollercoaster of a tale that keeps true to the humanity of it all while still leading a mystery as perplexing as any other. You never feel like the story is coming to an end. It's like stepping into a new beginning with your eyes wide open to a dim but persistent light.
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