Philips kills you softly with her words...
How best to describe The Opposite of Amber? Narrated by younger daughter, Ruby, the story encompasses a broad timeline but with the emphasis on a timeframe immediately before the first girlís murder and immediately after Jinn (Rubyís older sister and surrogate mother) is also murdered. That said this novel is anything but a crime thriller; or any kind of thriller for that matter. It is a tale of two sisters whose close relationship is tried beyond breaking point and when the elder sister is killed, well, it kind of puts pay to any notion of reconciliation.
Ruby is the nexus around which all things gravitate. It is her voice we hear on every page; which is ironic since her character is all but mute. A troubled and acutely introspective teenager, Ruby chooses not to engage with the world around her instead finding solace in the rectitude of silence. But her muteness is the product of a guilty mind: she feels responsible for the attempted suicide of a fellow student, Alex, who literally took her at her word when she told him to take a running jump. Despite the botched effort (Alex survives), Ruby metaphorically flogs herself with the memory of it. Whilst an attempted suicide is clearly traumatic for all those involved, the moroseness with which Ruby obsesses over her part in it dulls the shock factor and actually gets incredibly irritating. It may be closer to a realistic reaction than is comfortable, and certainly it is distracting enough Ė but it swamps the rest of the storyline: that there is a sadistic killer on the rampage, picking off local prostitutes is background chatter at most. Even the loss of her sister to Nathan Baird and Jinn's subsequent slide down the slippery slope to prostitution doesnít really penetrate Rubyís self absorption. And when the climatic event arrives (Jinnís death), itís almost like a whisper lost in the wind.
So, not a thrillerÖ no. Jinn is the sidekick to Rubyís amazing feats of self centeredness. The Opposite of Amber is a bittersweet portrayal of the emotional bond that exists between siblings and the unasked for baggage it brings. This is a decidedly one-sided view of a relationship between the two sisters, with Ruby slouching, embittered and angry at the world right, smack on the centre of everything. And despite our wanting to, we canít like her. In fact, we dislike her very much. Sympathy for the tragedies that engulf her life, swallowing her up in the sadness of it all, is hard to find. Perhaps this is partly because we hate that we recognise her selfishness in ourselves; when something bad happens, we think: why me? If it happens to someone else, we think: thank God itís not me.
Philip brings Rubyís character to life with all the grim reality of a flawed human being. There is no discriminating between the sweetness and innocence of the younger Ruby and the sourness of her older self. We are provided with the intimate details of her thoughts and the monosyllabic contents of her interactions. We are both kept at armís length and suffocated by her emotional responses. Exquisitely written, with a wild beauty that is as nonconformist as the Scottish countryside, Philip has created a beguiling novel that leaves a handprint on your soul.
We interview C J Daugherty about Night School
- 10 January 2012