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My Sister Rosa (Justine Larbalestier)

(Allen & Unwin, 2016)

There aren’t many books about 10-year-olds that can scare the pants off you. But if there were, My Sister Rosa would still end up at the top of the list. What really gets you by the throat about this one is the prevailing sense of menace, and, without giving away too much, let’s just say that it never really goes away.

Nobody believes 17-year-old Che that there is something wrong with his sister Rosa. To everyone else, Rosa is just a precocious 10-year-old, hyper-intelligent and likely to get herself into “situations” because of her insatiable curiosity. But Che knows that the reason is just bit more serious than that—that Rosa is a high-functioning psychopath and she is dangerous. But he can also see that nobody in their right minds would think so, for Rosa is also a charming, articulate little girl, with perfect dimples and pretty curls, and she projects an innocence that makes you certain she couldn’t hurt a fly. However, Rosa can and Rosa will hurt much more than flies. Only Che is aware of that.

What makes Rosa even more dangerous is that she has already figured out how to pass for “normal”. And in her young life she has already left a wake of destruction that everyone around her seems completely blind to. Only Che knows—and he has been watching and documenting Rosa for years—that the things that happen around her have all been carefully orchestrated and manipulated by her. Worse, her psychopathic behaviour is escalating, and that terrifies Che, because he knows that next time someone is going to die.

As Che, Rosa and their parents move to New York City as part of their parents’ new job and start to settle in, Che is afraid that he won’t be able to keep his sister under control. Despite giving her word to be good, Rosa is incredibly clever at finding loopholes to wriggle out of her promise without perceiving to break them. Which means that Che’s worst nightmare might be closer to fruition than he imagined, that the chain of events that Rosa has set in motion—whose endgame only she can see—will end in disaster, possibly even murder. Amdist his helplessness to get help for Rosa—and to keep the world safe from her—how can he live his own life, find his own dreams?

Predictably, the story winds to a terrifying conclusion, the sort where your worst fears come true. The sense of dread and foreboding in the narrative sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages, as you scream inside for somebody to see through Rosa’s charm. Everything you fear most does happen—and even though there is a particular twist towards the end that might have been a side dish of shock, but which you sort of already guess—you still can’t help be disquieted at how it all plays out.

My Sister Rosa has a terrific story at its centre, but what I liked almost as much about the book was the voice of the narrator. Che was an individual, not an assimilation of the stereotypical notions one has of teenage boys that one sees slapped repeatedly amdist the pages of young adult fiction like they’ve been photocopied in bulk. Even with all the things we know can be taken mostly for granted with a 17-year-old, including romantic attraction and conflict with parents, he still comes across as his own person, not a caricature of who or what he is supposed to be. He is sensitive, selfish, intelligent, disobedient, loyal, mixed-up, confident, unsure, motivated, sulky, compassionate, obssessive…. There is also a deliciously diverse cast of characters, most notable among them Sojourner’s mothers, a lesbian Christian couple, one of them a minister even. In YA fiction religious people are mostly always depicted as narrowminded, homophobic and conservative, so these two were a refreshing change.

If you’re looking for some quality young adult fiction, go ahead and pick My Sister Rosa up. But when you get your sleepless nights, you’re on your own.

RATING: 8/10
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