It’s a pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for The Lost Sister by Kathleen McGurl: published by HQ Digital, the ebook was published on 12th May, available for kindle via Amazon in the UK and US, with the paperback to follow on 8th July (available now for preorder). My usual thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for both the invitation and her support, and also to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley).
I’ve now read so many of Kath’s lovely books that I’m going to take the easy route this time – just pop her name in my search bar on the right hand side and you’ll find all the reviews. My favourites? I’ll never forget The Stationmaster’s Daughter (you’ll find my review here) – if her books look like your cup of tea, I’d really recommend trying that one. But I really enjoyed her last book too, The Forgotten Gift – superb storytelling, excellent characters, two threads just beautifully entwined (and you’ll find that review here). It’s not often that I’m able to read every single book from a favourite author, but I saw her doing an excellent online chat – she was left talking to camera (goodness, that was brave!), and the way she talked about this book and the inspiration behind it made me decide that there was no way I wasn’t adding it to my reading list…
Three sisters. Three ships. One heartbreaking story.
1911. As Emma packs her trunk to join the ocean liner Olympic as a stewardess, she dreams of earning enough to provide a better life for both her sisters. With their photograph tucked away in her luggage, she promises to be back soon – hoping that sickly Lily will keep healthy, and wild Ruby will behave. But neither life at sea nor on land is predictable, and soon the three sisters’ lives are all changed irrevocably…
Now. When Harriet finds her late grandmother’s travelling trunk in the attic, she’s shocked to discover a photo of three sisters inside – her grandmother only ever mentioned one sister, who died tragically young. Who is the other sister, and what happened to her? Harriet’s questions lead her to the story of three sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, and a shattering revelation about three sisters torn apart…
I thought it was rather brave of the author to take on the story of the White Star liners – everyone is so very familiar with the story of the ill-fated Titanic’s maiden voyage, and I wondered how she could play it into a story and make it fresh and new. But she most certainly manages to do so, with a rather lovely dual time story focusing on two generations of women, tied together by the long hidden secrets of three sisters whose lives are changed by Emma’s decision to sign on as a stewardess on the Olympic. What makes this book fresh and different is its focus on individuals – mothers and daughters, sibling relationships – and a story with a strong central mystery and a series of secrets and connections to be uncovered.
I liked the sense of symmetry between the three sisters, three ships in the historical thread. Emma lives with her mother and two sisters – Lily is the youngest and ailing one, difficult for her to leave behind when she signs on for her big adventure, Ruby the one who’s rather going off the rails having become involved in a rather ill-judged relationship. Emma’s experiences in signing on as a stewardess in Second Class are quite fascinating – the whole signing on process, new friendships, a touch of romance, a very different “staff” perspective on the oceangoing experience, the many demands of the passengers she deals with, all feeling very real and well-researched. But family responsibilities loom large, and her promise to look after the errant Ruby has particularly life-changing impacts.
There is something of a saga feel to the historical story, which will delight many – I’ll admit it wasn’t entirely something I loved, but that’s really just a matter of personal taste and preference. And while the Titanic story might have been a familiar one, I knew very little about the story of the third liner, the Britannic – that was particularly fascinating to discover, as well as providing a few dramatic, nail-biting and emotional moments.
But I was entirely hooked by the contemporary thread – Harriet moving on after the loss of her husband, her decision to downsize, the support of her bossy daughter Sally (who also needs support through her own challenges), the sadness of her estrangement from daughter Davina, the neglect of her relationship with her brother. The clearing of the family home uncovers some surprises – the main one being that her grandmother was one of three sisters rather than the two she was aware of, discovered from a picture found in a forgotten travelling trunk in the attic. Harriet takes a cruise on the Queen Mary 2 with her flamboyant and fun friend Sheila, a nice bit of mirroring of Emma’s earlier voyages: and Sheila also introduces her to the Ancestry website, enabling her to dig a little further into the hidden lives of the three sisters.
The contemporary story isn’t stronger than the historical one, and maintaining the links and resonances between them is something the author manages particularly well, but there were times when I found it more engaging. Harriet was particularly easy to identify with – I empathised with the way she’d neglected her relationship with her brother, really liked the tentative steps towards a reconciliation, and there were aspects to her difficult relationship with her daughter Davina that worked particularly well at an emotional level. And there are quite a few surprises – connected with the story of her grandmother and her sisters, but also stemming from the twists and turns of the contemporary one.
This might not have been my favourite of the author’s books, but I still very much enjoyed it – the family relationships in both timelines, the weaving of present day and sometimes familiar historical background, the moments of emotional impact, the clever use of mirroring. And I read it in a single sitting – the author is always a superb storyteller, effortlessly balancing the contemporary and the historical, making you travel with and believe in her characters, her writing fluent and immensely engaging. A very enjoyable read – and one I’d certainly recommend.
About the author
Kathleen McGurl lives in Christchurch, UK with her husband. She has two sons who have both now left home. She always wanted to write, and for many years was waiting until she had the time. Eventually she came to the bitter realisation that no one would pay her for a year off work to write a book, so she sat down and started to write one anyway.
Since then she has published several novels with HQ and self-published another. She has also sold dozens of short stories to women’s magazines, and written three How To books for writers. After a long career in the IT industry she became a full time writer in 2019. When she’s not writing, she’s often out running, slowly.