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.

24 thoughts on “Simone van der Vlugt: Shadow Sister – Schaduwzuster (2005) A Dutch Thriller

  1. This novel sounds so suspenseful! Reading from two different points of view would add to the tension. I’m not familiar with this author, but I’m adding the book to my list!

    • It really is suspenseful and I thought the idea to have one sister progress in time in her narrative while the other was catching up was quite a cunning idea.
      You should also give Reunion a try. It’s very good.

  2. I’m interested in the fact that you didn’t like the use of present tense. I often find the same thing myself. I know it’s supposed to be more immediate, but to me it often sounds unnatural and forced. I tried writing in the present tense myself as well, and it didn’t work for me at all. I just looked back at a blog post I wrote about it at the time, and here’s what I said, among other things:

    “The present tense seemed to work well for describing scenes as they were happening, but not for filling in the gaps between the scenes. My novel was becoming a slightly repetitive series of mini-stories with no clear link between them. I found it difficult to step back and give a broader sweep. The attempts to do so felt forced and clunky.”

    I just finished “C” by Tom McCarthy, and I would say that I enjoyed it despite, rather than because of, the constant use of present tense. Would be interested to hear why you didn’t like it in this book.

    • I think an overuse of present-tense, especially in genre writing, is not very subtle. I would say it isn’t even a story-telling tense. Just imagine “One upon a time…” and the rest in present tense. Or an epic… In Shadow Sister even the memories she recollects are told in present tense. “I rememeber I walk with my father. I am five…” As for immediacy we can’t be everywhere at the same time, it does feel unnatural, as you say. I think you can indeed switch for scenes but it needs to be used with moderation. I think present tense is also quite heavy, no musicality at all.
      I’m sure one can use the present tense artfully. Probably Tom McCarthy did it well.
      I don’t use present tense all that often when I write but that is probably because I like stories in which someone looks back on something or someone long gone.
      I would use it if I imagined the voice talking to the person who is gone.

  3. I thought this might be just the book for me – except for the present tense. Why oh why is everything written in it that is supposed to be gripping? i really get fed up with it. Still, everything else about this book sounds intriguing (although perhaps I should read her first novel if that’s the better of the two).

    • It is the first time that the present tense annoyed me this much. and I didn’t get why she didn’t vary at least a bit.
      I would recommend Reuninon. I can’t remember the same over use of the present tense but maybe I didn’t pay attention because I liked it a lot.

  4. Another discovery in Dutch literature. I’ll check out if she’s been translated into French. If I decide to read her (my TBR is HUGE), I’ll choose Reunion. (hopefully the English title isn’t too different from the French)
    About present tense. I’m currently reading Syrup by Maxx Barry which has a lot of it. It gives rythm and suits the story. If it bothered you, it probably means it didn’t suit that well to the plot.

    • Exactly, it didn’t work but also because the voices sounded so similar. If they had been different I might not have minded all that much. I read a few Dutch crime novels and thought she was quite good. Better than Saskia Noort.
      I checked for you. Reunion is called La Mémoire assassine. It isn’t paperback yet.

  5. Switching points of view can be difficult to follow sometimes. And I’m not sure I would like the lack of character development. Maybe I will look into Reunion instead.

    • Character development wasn’t its strong point but sometimes it’s also great to feel like rushing through a novel in order to find out who did it. It was captivating but Reunion was much better.

  6. And again you presented the good side and bad side of a book 🙂

    The book sounds interesting, instead of the killing stuff, I am more interested in the victim as a teacher. I want to know more about her point of view in teaching students from different cultures (as I am also teaching kids from Korea, Japan and India since last year … tho they are not high school kids. My HS students are all Indonesian).

    The present tense probably won’t affect me much, I have read some books in present tense (couldn’t remember which book anymore).

    • I was very interested in the teaching part. Usually you are not allowed to say that there are problems with kids with a migratory background. Especially not in Switzerland or the Netherlands. They will call you a racist but it is a fact, there are problems and not only the language. I think it depends where the kids come from, depending on their origin you have different problems. I did teach shortly and realized I cannot handle the male aggression/flirting … I was 27 when I taught a class for a while in which there were 18 year old boys from Turkey. Easter European boys, Turkish and Northern Africans are problematic for a woman as a teacher. Girls were better but they have become extremely aggressive as well now and delinquent.

  7. I don’t always notice which tense a story is told–unless it is so obvious you can’t miss it–than it makes for harder reading–maybe the case here? I really liked Reunion, too, and was happy to see she had a new one out. I will watch for this one (i don’t think she has ever been published in the US), but I’ll see if I can find a used copy–so many other books to read…..

    • There are some more out in German, which logically means, there must be even more out in Dutch. I liked Reunion a lot. But for a fast and entertaining read this is not a bad option.

  8. I didn’t know you were a teacher once, you have so many job experiences….amazing. I have been a teacher since graduated.

    I can see your point clearly. Not to be racialist but different cultures tends to create problem in teaching

    • Diversity has been the key word in my life so far. 🙂
      Some cultures teach their boys that women are not worth much and the obviously this will be problematic when they face a female teacher.

  9. I hadn’t heard of this author, and the book does sound appealing (apart from the negatives). I really like novels that build a character who isn’t there (dead in this case), and there’s always that angle of different impressions from different people.

    • I liked that device, it’s sort of creepy to hear a dead person speak about things, knowing she doesn’t see her death coming. Reunion was good without the flaws.

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