What if the most terrifying person you'd ever met was your ten-year old sister? A spine-chilling psychological thriller from one of Australia's finest YA authors.
Justine Larbalestier is the author of Razorhurst, which won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel and was shortlisted for both the NSW and Victorian Premiers' Literary Awards, and Liar, which won the YA Western Australian Premier's book award, the YA Sisters in Crime Davitt Award and was shortlisted for the CBCA Older Readers award, among many other honours. She also edited the collection, Zombies Versus Unicorns with Holly Black. Justine lives in Sydney where she gardens, boxes, and watches too much cricket, and sometimes in New York City where she wanders about public parks hoping they'll let her do some gardening and misses cricket a lot.
This is an absolute adrenalin-rush of a novel, an ominous race towards disaster in an addictive page-turner. My Sister Rosa is a contemporary horror story, grounded in the latest science of the human psyche, and the best YA novel I’ve read since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is an excellent text for middle high school, perfect for Year 10, with an astonishingly authentic narrative voice which will immediately appeal to boys aged 15 – 16 years old, but also with two fabulously feisty and believable female lead characters to keep the girls reading.
The novel is full of issues relevant to teenagers today, from the most familiar (relationships with peers and friends; sex; issues with parents) to the most complex (our parents’ past lives; how much anyone’s personality is shaped by their DNA; what constitutes “normal” or “abnormal” psychology). Because Che’s world, the narrator, is so honestly and engagingly written, based so firmly in the immediate here and now, it will be instantly recognisable for most readers. This forms the perfect starting-point for the journey Che takes the reader on, even when that journey leads way beyond the everyday realities of most readers’ lives (after all, how many of us actually have a family member who is a psychopath? Then again, there may be more than we realise.)
For once this is a YA novel that is full of foreboding but that is neither dystopian, nor set in the future. We know that something bad will happen, but wondering how and why keeps us compulsively reading on. I couldn’t put this book down, and when I simply had to, I found myself constantly thinking about the characters. Initially I kept wondering how reliable a narrator Che actually is, despite the authenticity of his account, wondering whether his parents David and Sally are in denial about Rosa, or whether they are just the laid-back and reasonable parents they initially appear to be. But as the novel progressed, and the sense of doom increased, I found myself becoming more and more uneasy about the parents’ all-too-familiar “benign neglect” of the children. (“They’re not terrible parents, they’re neglectful parents…” p108). Their laissez-faire, selfish and ultimately irresponsible parenting, dangerously combined with the McBrunight’s wealth, are depressingly recognisable, and the indictment of 21st century parenting is powerful. For some adolescent readers this may be too close-to-home and therefore confronting, but it certainly opens the door to some very meaty classroom discussions.
Two passages which tackle this head on are p256 where Leilani says “They’re terrible, Che. They barely remember they have children… Do they actually love you? Because I know ours don’t love us.” And Che’s bitter commentary on the instability of Rosa’s childhood on p392 “I’m seven years older than you… You had David push you in the worst directions…”
Throughout the novel there is also the complex issue of our psycho-pathology and its influences, with many passages throughout which could be used to prompt class discussion and debate, e.g. on p392 when Che is comparing his childhood to Rosa’s and tries to explain to her “I am not my brain… There’s environment. DNA. We’re not merely the shape of our brains.”
I cannot recommend this novel too highly. I can’t wait for my adolescent son to finish reading it so we can have some great discussions about the characters and the issues, so I can hear a perspective from the other side of the child/parent divide. I have been constantly recommending the novel to adults and adolescents alike, as I feel it raises some of the most significant social issues of our time in a totally accessible and absorbing way.
My Sister Rosa is a first-rate psychological thriller, unnerving, shocking and thought-provoking, and perfectly pitched for today’s adolescents.
Kylie Salisbury, NSW
I found this to be a scary read, the idea that someone you love is a monster is a terrifying one. Especially if that someone is a child and there is little that you can do to stop the hurt they will cause. The story is told from the point of view of Che, who finds himself in this situation, he knows that his sister, Rosa, is dangerous but no one will believe him. Because of this he is caught in the unenviable position of wanting to protect her and wanting to protect those around her. From the start you know that something terrible is going to happen and as you go on you can’t help but think about how events could have been avoided. You also start wondering who ultimately is responsible because it should not have been left up to a seventeen year old boy to deal with the strain of having to constantly be responsible for his sister’s actions.
This would be an ideal read for those who have an interest in psychology or those who enjoy psychological thrillers. Follow on activities could include discussions on how Che’s parents handled the situation, what was done that might have helped and what could have been done differently. The story also provokes an opportunity to debate on the issue of nature verses nurture, was Rosa destined to behave in this manner or could something in her environment and life have been altered to change her outlook. Readers could also examine the arguments, for and against, allowing the public to know if there is a psychopath living amongst them.
Overall this book makes the reader think, it is hard to put down and when you finish the story stays with you for a long time afterwards.
Karina Fisk, Elisabeth Murdoch College, VIC
This novel is the first one I have read by Justine Larbalestier. It did take until half way into the novel for me to lose my critical eye and appreciate the characters and story being told by Larbalestier. At first I found the first person narration frustrating, and was expecting to find that Che, the seventeen year old narrator, was an unreliable one. The enormous amount of dialogue, which I know was necessary to drive the narrative and create interest for the reader, became rather tedious. I kept on thinking this story would have been more engaging if there had been an omniscient narrator telling it.
I also found faults with many of the characters in the novel. For such an independent and well-travelled individual Che was a very young and immature seventeen year old. In contrast I found it very difficult to believe that Rosa, the sister, was only ten years old. And don’t get me started on David and Sally, the ‘parentals’, who were incredibly selfish and had no idea how to be parents to their two children. Larbalestier then adds in same sex parents, a first sexual encounter (complete with the addition of a condom) and an assortment of stereotypical American teenagers all inhabiting Che’s world.
Despite my criticisms I found that half way through the narrative became absorbing and interesting. I know this novel would be excellent for the book club I attend, as many of the issues raised by Larbalestier would be hotly debated by our members. Within a high school setting I can see that this would be a novel for the library or the wide reading box. One to point students to and be discussed in reading circles within the school. There are too many contentious issues within it that would make it unsuitable, in my eyes, for class study.
Barbara Harrip, English Teacher, Kotara High School, NSW
Ten year old Rosa is a psychopath. She is callous, she has no inhibitions, she is fearless and she has the charisma to manipulate people and make them do things that go against their normal moral values. The opening sentence, “Rosa is pushing all the buttons”, is a subtle double entendre. Rosa pokes and manipulates everyone throughout the book in the same way that she stresses and tests everything in her business class seat on the plane taking the family to New York. Che, her seventeen year old brother, says “Rosa will get bored, she'll look for ways to make trouble without Sally and David, our parents, finding out. That's the game she plays. My job is to stop her.” p3
“What are you doing Rosa?
Bothering you Che.
What are you going to do when you stop bothering me, Rosa?
Rosa giggles, 'I'm never going to stop bothering you, Che.” p27
This theme of trying to contain a psychopath, a mere child of ten, makes for a compelling and exhilarating story line. For every attempt by Che to have Rosa promise not to do bad things, her bush lawyer logic and angelic appearance allow Rosa to do evil without remorse, with warped justification.
Justine Larbalestier, author of My Sister Rosa, says she was inspired to write her book after a Twitter comment about The Bad Seed, a book written in 1954 by William March. It looked at the Nature/Nurture dichotomy and explored the genetic inheritance of 'badness'. Justine researched current understanding of genetic inheritance and the mind of a psychopath so that her main characters have the same genetic inheritance but their nurturing, particularly in formative years has been quite different.
After a catastrophic event orchestrated by Rosa and leading to the death of a child, Che and Rosa see the MRIs of their own brains and see the area that is black. Che thinks he is looking at Rosa's scan:
"While Dr Gupta explains to the others what we're looking at I'm staring at Rosa's darkness. There's almost no activity in the orbital cortex, in the amygdala. It's a typical brain scan for someone with anti-social personality disorder. There are no lights on in the parts of her brain that feel empathy, that love, that have a conscience.
'And this is Rosa's scan,' Dr Gupta says, pressing a button so that a third scan appears. 'This one has even less activity in the amygdala.'
The middle scan is mine…” p365
Che has been looking at his own scan and not Rosa’s and does not really register “this one (Rosa’s) has even less activity”. But he has shown he is not a psychopath in his dedication to his family, by keeping watch over Rosa and the intensity of his relationship with Sojourner.
“‘You're not only your brain,’ she (Dr Gupta) amends.” p365
This is a fascinating book for a mature reader, fast paced, intriguing and with a resolution fitting the development of the story line. Told through the eyes of Che, it presents the honest concerns of a seventeen year old boy (I want a girlfriend, I want to spar, I want to go home) with the added complication of Rosa. It would need careful consideration as a class text, suitable for Year 10 and above, but could provide excellent discussion on:
There would be many real life instances for students to research.
This is a gripping read and a dark insight into an evil mind through the eyes of an engaging and emotionally turbulent teenage boy.
Peggy Knott, Librarian, Liverpool Girls High School, NSW
From the beginning My Sister Rosa establishes a sense of unease. The narrator, Che, is a 17 year old boy who is convinced his younger sister, Rosa, is a psychopath and potential killer. The novel charts both the relationship between Che and Rosa, and the new relationships they develop following their move to New York with their parents.
Larbalestier creates a world in which adolescents are central and adults are marginalised - in fact they seem largely oblivious to much of what goes on around them. While parents refuse to face uncomfortable truths, adolescents are clearly intelligent and self-aware. They look reality in the face and are remarkably independent and responsible. While this empowers teenage readers, it is difficult to accept adult characters who are so unaware. For much of the story, Che’s parents seem undefined and peripheral to the plot, so focused on each other they have transferred their parenting role to Che.
As in Larbalestier’s earlier novel Liar, the issue of truth versus lies is raised. What constitutes a lie? Is omission lying? What about loopholes in promises? The issue of nature versus nurture also surfaces: are psychopaths born or raised? Both issues could open up rewarding discussion with readers.
A gripping read, this novel could easily hook teenage readers and as such would be a popular inclusion in a wide reading program for Senior English students; the drugs, alcohol and sex included in the novel, however, would make it a risky choice as a text for full class study. Larbalestier once again delivers an original novel which leaves the reader thinking long after the story has ended.
Sue McPherson, Ferny Grove State High School, QLD
Justine Larbalestier is an exciting writer with the ability to raise the hairs on the back of your neck in an ‘O so subtle’ way, and in the most ordinary of circumstances. I have previously enjoyed two of her books: the best seller, Liar and the award winning Horror novel, Razorhurst. So I was really looking forward to reading her new book. My Sister Rosa is another extraordinary, compelling work of YA psychological horror fiction.
David and Sally have two children, a teenage son they named Che, who is filled with a sense of responsibility for his younger sister, Rosa. Sally and David started life together as Australians, but spend much of their time overseas, working on ‘Projects’ for ‘worthy causes’ and always taking both children with them. The narrative begins with the little family on a flight from Bangkok to a new job for both of them in New York. In the opening chapter we watch as Rosa behaves in a somewhat unusual way, and the inner anxiety of Che becomes apparent, as we see just how fully he believes that it is his responsibility to “Keep Rosa Under Control”.
Although this book makes for compelling reading, I actually had to take some ‘sanity breaks’, as the wonderful journey of self-discovery that Che is undertaking in New York travels alongside the darkness inside this little girl, and the unfolding secrets of this family. Throughout the novel, I felt that I was always ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop.’ On the outside, Rosa appears to be a very pretty young girl who enjoys life and is trying to learn how to be less socially awkward and ‘different’. But we are always aware of Che’s ‘take’ on her psychology and behaviour. There are of course other characters, and for some, things do not go well. As time goes on, Rosa’s character, psychology, and behaviour begins to seem more and more strange to us, and our nebulous fear for the other characters begins to take form.
The book would work well with teenagers, from mid to upper Secondary. At 398 pages, it is a good, solid read. My Sister Rosa could lead to discussion about parenting, siblings, extended family, morality, ethics, criminal behaviour, adolescence, independence, mental health, love, friendship, religion. Also suitable for Genre study, with psychological horror being the obvious one.
Helen Wilde, SA
An intriguing and suspenseful read that looks at the concept of evil and family from a teen’s point of view. Larbalestier is in fine form with another nail biting page turner that confronts society’s perceptions, values and beliefs of family. Like Liar the story has twists and the reader is challenged on the how they view parenting, evil and faith.
Che has been responsible for his little sister since birth, while he expected to protect her from the world he realises as she grows that it is the world that needs to be protected from his angelic appearing sister. The novel follows seventeen year old Che’s thoughts and feelings as he comes to the conclusion that his beautiful little sister is a psychopath. While he juggles his first girlfriend, his development as a boxer and parents that refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with Rosa; Che faces the fact evil is real and he is losing control.
This novel would be an excellent text for Study of Religion as it explores ideas such as parental responsibility, psychopathy, faith, genetics, nature vs nurture, transgender and class divides. Readers are given several family dynamics to compare along with various role models that exist in Che’s life. The characters interwoven in the novel provide a rich tapestry that reflects current life for teenagers. The characterisation, point of view, as well the social issues portrayed by the author are worthwhile points of discussion for English study. A well-researched and poignantly written story that will make the reader reconsider what is normal in today’s world.
Jo Corcoran, Teacher Librarian, Highfields State School, QLD