Review: My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

Genre: Young Adult

Seventeen-year-old Che Taylor wants four things: he wants to spar, not just take boxing classes. He wants a girlfriend: ‘Someone smart and funny and sexy who likes boxing, Muhammad Ali and has seen Ong-bak at least twenty times’. He wants to convince his family to leave New York and head home to Sydney where he has friends and the weather isn’t so miserable. But most of all he wants—needs—to keep his little sister, Rosa, under control. Because Rosa isn’t your average ten-year-old:

Rosa is a ticking bomb.

     I don’t think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil, or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding.

As a little kid, Rosa killed ants. In Bankok, their home before New York, Rosa convinced her best friend to kill her guinea pig. And now Rosa’s looking to up her game. She’s found a new best friend, can outsmart most adults and has a growing fascination with death. Unfortunately, Rosa is also cute as pie: blonde ringlets, blue eyes, dimples, the works. Grown-ups liken her to Shirley Temple but think Interview With the Vampire‘s Claudia, sans fangs:

“I promise I’ll get rid of the bodies.”

And few people, least of all Che’s parents, are willing to believe a kid who looks so innocent could be capable of anything sinister.

Che has other things on his mind, too. Namely impressing Sojourner, the bad-ass fighter at his new gym, and figuring out whether or not one of NYC’s top fashion bloggers and enforced family friend, Leilani, is planning to drag him down to a new circle of hell, or is someone he might actually be able to trust.

Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa (Allen & Unwin, Jan. 2016) is one of my most anticipated YA reads of 2016. When I read the blurb in Allen & Unwin’s January catalogue I was like: OH HELL YES, GIMME!! And guys, it’s so good: equal parts coming-of-age story and suspense thriller.

I’m somewhat familiar with Larbalestier’s work prior to My Sister Rosa. I read her novel Liar (2009) when it first came out (loved the story, loved the unreliable narrator but not so much The Big Twist—but I also thought the twist in Gone Girl was one of the stoopidest things I’ve ever read *ducks for cover*) and her 2014 novel Razorhurst is high up on my TBR pile—I have heard only incredible things. Her fiction is dark and smart and deep, which is everything I want in a YA read, or any book for that matter.

Throughout My Sister Rosa there’s a steadily rising tension—every time Che starts to feel at home in New York, make friends, become a little closer to Sojourner, Rosa does something to remind him that she’s the one pulling the strings—she runs away, steals something precious, starts showing up at the Sunday school where Sojourner teaches. There’s a twist in this story too, and this one I loved: subtly foreshadowed and smoothly executed. It’s the kind of tightly woven narrative where Every. Single. Detail. Ties into the bigger picture.

But that’s not even the most impressive part. For me, the characters and their relationships are the real highlights of the story. Che, like many teenagers, is being pulled in different directions. He’s worried about his sister, but he’s also the new kid in town, trying to make new friends while keeping up with those he left behind in Sydney. He’s passionate about fitness and boxing—using his training as an outlet for his (sometimes violent) emotions—and he thinks he might be falling in love. But most of all, he’s trying to figure out who the hell he is, but his understanding of his family history is shifting, forcing him to reassess not only how he views the world, but how he views himself.

Rosa, too, is fascinating—how do you write a psychopathic ten-year-old without making her into a two-dimensional and completely unrealistic villain? Larbalestier somehow pulls it off. Rosa sees people as either useful or not useful, and she’s not malicious so much as completely self-interested, highly manipulative and utterly fearless. She can’t empathise with others, but by the end, the reader can almost empathise with her.

And then there’s ‘the parentals’. In a lot of YA, adults appear as either blank authority figures who show up at the start of the story to tell teenagers what not to do and again around the major crisis to say I Told You So. If the protag. is really lucky, they might score a hug in the denouement.

From Tim Burton's 'Vincent' (1982). Worth a looksee, if you aren't familiar.
Typical YA authority figure: a wagging finger admonishing from on high. Still from Tim Burton’s ‘Vincent’ (1982).

Alternatively, they’re workaholics, alcoholics, wildly neglectful or some combination of the above that prevents them from having any kind of insight or involvement in their kid’s life. Initially, Che and Rosa’s parents appear to fit this latter category: too in love with each other and their work to notice the kids aren’t alright. However, as the story plays out and Che begins to see that nothing and no one should be taken at face value, Larbalestier adds colour and depth to them, too, and the reader’s understanding of Che’s family begins to change.

At its heart, My Sister Rosa is a story about the labels we apply to people and the way those labels encourage (unfair) stereotypes and prevent us from seeing people for who they really are.

Throughout the story, Che is wary of calling Rosa a psychopath because of the assumptions people will make about her and how that might affect her quality of life. But Che also acknowledges that Rosa’s lack of empathy is a significant part of who she is and that by ignoring it, he’s likely putting other people at risk.

Larbalestier takes pains to acknowledge that we are all different and that while we shouldn’t make snap judgments about a person based on their race, religion, sexuality, gender or whether or not they happen to be a psychopath, these things also contribute to a person’s identity and shouldn’t be dismissed either. For example, Sojourner is a Christian, and her faith is an important part of her life while Che is an atheist. Initially, Sojourner won’t consider dating anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs but, as her feelings for Che grow, she comes to see that their faith or lack thereof is just one aspect of who they are as people. Conversely, Leilani’s girlfriend, Veronica, is willfully colour blind to race. She thinks this makes her more enlightened and open-minded, but, in fact, means dismissing a significant part of people’s experience, history and cultural identity.

Ultimately, Larbalestier encourages her characters (and by extension her reader) to understand that identity is complex and unique to each individual, and that first impressions are often misleading and worse, ill-informed.

I think this is an important message. As a genre, YA is slowly moving towards more diverse and inclusive narratives, but it still has a long way to go. That said, there were parts of My Sister Rosa where I felt as though I were reading the script for a Degrassi Junior High episode, theme: Diversity, take home message.

Still, the real bummer is that Larbalestier (rightly) feels there’s a need to push these ideas at all.

My Sister Rosa was everything I hoped it would be and a little bit more: a twisting, tightly-woven story of false impressions that keeps the reader thinking long after the story is done. YA fans, this right here is the good stuff.

See My Sister Rosa on Goodreads and purchase through AmazonBook Depository and Kobo.

Thank you toAllen & Unwin for providing a copy of My Sister Rosa in exchange for an honest review.

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