Simone van der Vlugt: Shadow Sister – Schaduwzuster (2005) A Dutch Thriller

Married. One child. A career: Lydia has her life in perfect order – if only everyone else around her could be as organised as she is. Her unmarried twin sister Elisa is still struggling to find what she wants to do. And her colleagues at the school where she teaches often fail to reach her high standards.But one day, it all falls apart from Lydia. When she is threatened by one of her pupils, her sister is the first person she turns to. But Elisa is powerless to stop the campaign of intimidation that follows. How far will it go? Or is someone else taking advantage of the situation? And what is Elisa’s part in all of this? Twins are close. Aren’t they?

I was looking forward to reading Shadow Sister because Simone van der Vlugt’s first novel Reunion was excellent, a gripping page-turner with a surprising ending. Shadow Sister wasn’t as good but despite its flaws I couldn’t put it down and thought the ending was not foreseeable.

The story is told from a first person point of view, alternating between the two sisters. While we know early on that Lydia was killed, we still read her chapters. The chapters of the sister start after Lydia has died while hers progress slowly towards her death.

Lydia is a Dutch teacher at a school for immigrant kids. It isn’t an easy job but she loves it. She thinks she can make a difference and that is all that matters to her. The kids aren’t very disciplined and get into fights among each other but mostly they respect her. Until Bilal, a Moroccan boy, feels ridiculed by Lydia and attacks her with a knife. She has him suspended from school and from that moment on she feels threatened. Someone stands in front of her house at night, someone follows her from the school. The police take it very seriously but she just reports it. When she is killed, no one has doubts that it was the boy but Bilal has an alibi.

From her sisters point of view we start to see another side of Lydia. We realize that she was maybe not as perfect as everybody believed and we also realize that there were problems in the marriage. Her husband Raoul is a bit too good-looking and he seems to be having an affair or be in love with someone. We also find out that Elisa has feelings for her brother-in-law.

All this together makes for gripping reading. The description of the school and the problems schoolteachers face nowadays with children who are not motivated, who come from other cultures, who don’t take a woman seriously, who feel threatened in their masculinity the moment you criticize a tiny thing, is interesting. What I didn’t like is the fact that van der Vlugt uses present tense all through the book. And I wouldn’t call Shadow Sister a psychological thriller as there isn’t much in terms of character analysis. Both sisters sound exactly the same and also the other characters are a bit flat. The person that is rendered best is Lydia’s little daughter.  If you are looking for another Ruth Rendell, this isn’t your book but if you look for a gripping page-turner offering social elements, you might enjoy it.