The Ice Twins
It’s official. I’ve stumbled into the latest thriller trend – unreliable narrators. In fact, I just about fell into The Ice Twins, even though I wasn’t crazy about the premise at first. A twin dies in a tragic fall, and only later does her mother realize she may have buried the wrong sibling. Haven’t we seen this in the headlines? But the library had the eBook available right then, while they had a waiting list for the thrillers I wanted most. I took a chance, and I’m glad I did, even if I had to endure unlikeable characters and even worse weather. Those things turned out to be part of the fun.
There’s no question that one of the worst thing that can happen to a parent is the death of a child. If the child is a twin, the tragedy is heightened because the surviving twin has to deal with the loss of a part of herself. Throw in marital troubles, major financial problems, guilt, and secrets. With the emphasis on the guilt and the secrets. Like many parents in thrillers, Sarah and Angus Moorcroft decide to move to a remote area, a primitive old cottage that Angus has inherited on Torran Island (Eilean Torran in Gaelic), a small, tidal island near Ornsay, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island’s name means Thunder Island — a sign of rough weather to come.
Right before the move, the surviving twin tells her mother that they got it all wrong – that she is Lydia, not Kirstie. True to the psychological thriller genre, Sarah keeps this new revelation from her husband. After all, he’s not telling her everything. Sarah and Angus and their daughter Kirstie (or is she Lydia?) move to their Gaelic island, and of course, the cottage isn’t all that Angus remembers from his childhood. Cell phone reception? You’re lucky when the landline works. It’s almost uninhabitable, and more than a little odd — there are strange murals on the walls, and food is stored in baskets that hang from the kitchen ceiling (so that the rats don’t get it). All in all, it’s not really the best place for a troubled family to move just after a shattering revelation. Some readers will find it hard to believe that a couple would move to such a place. Maybe I accepted it because I’ve seen movie characters move to far worse places. (Crimson Peak anyone?)
Once Sarah and Angus move in, the atmosphere kicks in like clouds coming in before a squall. Torran Island is full of wild beauty, but it’s also the sort of place that gets cut off for days during a storm, or where you can die if you get stuck crossing the mudflats when the tide comes in. The nearby island of Ornsay is charming, with pubs and locals and fresh sea air, but even the charm of Ornsay can be shattered when a dysfunctional family visits, and when Sarah’s daughter starts behaving oddly. When it’s time for her to attend school or a play date, everything gets worse. This twin is the sort of child who is not going to fit in.
Nor does Sarah fit in. She is distraught, emotional, swimming in a tidal pool of doubts. And as we spend most of the time in her head, we wind up swimming with her. Sarah makes some dreadful decisions about her surviving daughter and about Angus. I got the impression the author was “punishing” Sarah more for her sins; as though somehow Angus was less to blame. Uhm, no. They’re both messed up and they’ve both damaged their daughter as much as they’ve hurt each other. Angus is a very heavy drinker who lost his latest job because he got drunk and hit his boss, he’s angry with his wife and is concealing something from her. He doesn’t live down to the example of his abusive father, but he comes dangerously close. Disturbingly, that’s part of what turns Sarah on, and she has no idea that Angus is having increasingly violent thoughts about her. Meanwhile Lydia (or is she Kirstie?) is intense, haunted, and introverted, the sort of unsettling child suspense and horror fans love to encounter.
Reading The Ice Twins made me realize how books can do a better job painting atmosphere than even the best movies. Like a scary movie, this book drips with atmosphere as thick as fog, but it also lets the reader in on the doubts, guilt and disturbing thoughts of the characters. Books have to work harder than movies to scare you, but the rewards are better. I found myself reading in the sauna, at the table, in bed, just to find out what happened next.
As great as the buildup is, one of the big revelations about Sarah didn’t work for me because there weren’t enough hints. Even more importantly, while I adored the lead-up to the conclusion, I wasn’t in love with the ending. Parts of it are just vague enough, but some of it is too vague. Then there is the jarring transition from the height of suspense – raging storm, dangerous fog, treacherous mud – to months later. That seemed to be a cheat, and the PoV of the final chapter cheats as well.
There are also some elements that are raised but which don’t seem to mean much in the end. Sarah has a younger brother who is always in some other country, taking on odd jobs. I was sure he’d have a bigger part in the story, but he didn’t. So why was he there at all? There is also a Swedish billionaire who keeps a big house nearby. However, he is never there and the house doesn’t have a big role. So why was the house there at all?
Also, don’t let the sensuality level fool you. There is frank language about sex, and we learn that Sarah likes it rough. Sarah and Angus have been driven apart for months, but when they finally have sex, it’s not what I’d call a sex scene, let alone a love scene. Don’t be fooled by the author’s name, either. S. K. Tremayne is actually a pen name for a man, British journalist Sean Thomas. When I learned the author’s gender, I was surprised at first, and then moments later, I wasn’t. Maybe the that is the reason Sarah gets more of the blame for the issues surrounding her family. Then again, female novelists are no strangers to making their heroines suffer for their choices.
For all that, the trip to Torran Island was a foggy, stormy journey that kept me reading into the wee hours of the morning. How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much you are willing to accept as long as a book is creepy. If you like movies like The Visit and Insidious, even as you curse the plot, you might enjoy The Ice Twins.