Review: Sewing The Shadows Together by Alison Baillie

By | March 27, 2016

Can you ever get over the death of your sister? Or of your best friend? 

More than 30 years after 13-year-old Shona McIver was raped and murdered in Portobello, the seaside suburb of Edinburgh, the crime still casts a shadow over the lives of her brother Tom and her best friend Sarah. 

“Shona had been gone for so long but the memories still came unexpectedly, sometimes like a video from the past, sometimes distorted dreams, but she was always there.” 

When modern DNA evidence shows that the wrong man was convicted of the crime, the case is reopened. So who did kill Shona? Sarah and Tom are caught up in the search for Shona’s murderer, and suspicions fall on family and friends. The foundations of Sarah’s perfect family life begin to crumble as she realises that nothing is as it appears. Dark secrets from the past are uncovered, and there is another death, before the identity of the real killer is finally revealed… 

Set in Edinburgh, the Outer Hebrides and South Africa, Sewing the Shadows Together is a thoroughly modern murder mystery that keeps the reader guessing to the end. Filled with characters who could easily be friends, family or people we work with, it asks the question: 

Do we ever really know the people closest to us?

I’ve been meaning to read and review Sewing The Shadows Together by Alison Baillie since it was published in mid-2015 by Matador. The timing of the blog tour just didn’t fit with my travel plans, but I read all the reviews thinking “I’m really going to like this one”, and purchased a copy for my kindle. Earlier this year, Alison offered a personally signed copy of the book in the #TBConFB charity auction for Cancer Research UK, together with the opportunity to be a named character in her next book – and I was lucky enough to make the winning bid. So what better impetus to finally get round to reading Alison’s debut novel, and find out for myself whether I really would like it. I’m delighted to report that I didn’t just like it – I loved it. 

The first thing that really impressed was the strong sense of place – Edinburgh isn’t familiar to me, but it really came vividly to life as the characters moved around its areas and suburbs. The Outer Hebrides too – beautifully described, easily pictured with its desolate beauty and small tight-knit communities. And South Africa too – I’ve been to Plettenberg Bay and driven the Garden Route, and the backdrop for that part of the story is perfectly described.

The story is excellent, with its threads in the past and present so deftly plotted and drawn together. There’s the 1976 story of Shona’s murder and the appalling miscarriage of justice that saw the one boy who didn’t fit in accused, convicted, imprisoned and ignored. When the case is reopened, it not only reopens the wounds of those who loved her, but begins a search for the real murderer – and exposes some of the many lies and secrets withheld at the time, with the finger of suspicion hovering over many. 

In the present day, we have Tom and Sarah. Tom was Shona’s brother, moved with his family to South Africa shortly after the murder to escape its ongoing impact, now returned to scatter his mother’s ashes in Eriskay and picking up old Edinburgh friendships and acquaintances. Sarah was Shona’s best friend – always attracted to Tom, but now married to larger-than-life TV personality Rory, with two grown-up children who have lives of their own, a social climbing and sharp tongued mother and an inescapable commitment to bring the family together over lunch each Sunday. 

The author draws superb characters. Both Tom and Sarah won my heart, but some of the lesser characters were equally well done. Sarah’s mother Flora is really wonderfully awful, totally self-centred and insensitive, and completely real: Sarah’s children are equally well rounded, leading their own threads, making the story so much more than a murder mystery. The police characters – although not central to the story – are well drawn, HJ Kidd a constant fascination, Sarah’s “friend” Patsy an irritation whenever she appears, and there’s even a newspaper hack who’s depicted a great deal more kindly than his kind usually are.

This book has a bit of everything – it’s the very best of murder mysteries, a very affecting love story, a family drama with considerable complications, part social history, part travelogue, and a journey of personal discovery. It’s also a really compelling read – a real page-turner, whether to find out the secrets of family and friends or to discover the truth about what happened in the long hot summer of 1976. 

Quite perfectly paced, the writing is really excellent – I’ve mentioned the settings, but the dialogue is natural and well-written too, and the emotional depth of some of the characters (and the shallowness of others) very well handled. In the hands of a less able author, the waking dreams of Sarah which start the chapters and offer tantalising part memories might not have worked – but they do, very well indeed. 

Debut novel this might be, but there’s nothing of the “first novel” about it – this is an author who writes with confidence and skill, and who tells an excellent story. Very highly recommended, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the author does next.    

Alison Baillie was brought up in Ilkley, Yorkshire by Scottish parents. She studied English at the University of St Andrews, before teaching English in Edinburgh secondary schools and EFL in Finland and Switzerland. Now she spends her time reading, writing, travelling, playing with her granddaughter and attending crime writing festivals.

Follow Alison on Twitter or through her Facebook author page: she also has a website where you can read more about the author and her book.