A psychopathic 10-year-old little sister? A tale of manipulation and evil? I was intrigued. As a sucker for psychological thrillers, I immediately picked up My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier.
The novel is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Che Taylor, Rosa’s older brother who does everything in his power to keep his little sister in check. Che is an avid boxer and has big dreams of becoming a doctor. And despite his constant watch over Rosa, she still gets away with lying and manipulation just because she has learned to play the role of an innocent, adorable little girl.
At the beginning of the story, Che, Rosa, and their parents move to New York City from Bangkok – though they are originally from Australia, they constantly relocate due to their parents’ career of revamping businesses and selling them for a profit. At his boxing class, Che meets Sojourner, and he quickly develops an intense crush on her. Che also befriends the oldest daughter of his parents’ longtime friends and business partners while Rosa immediately gets close to one of the family’s twins.
When Che and Rosa are alone, Rosa can talk openly about how she feels and everything she wants to do. Though Che has made her promise not to kill, Rosa still finds ways to get around it – in Bangkok, she convinced her best friend to smother her own pet guinea pig to death. She relies on Che because he teaches her to act “normal,” but she exploits any loopholes in his rules and admits to enjoying having others do her bidding. Che is convinced his little sister – whom he still loves with all his heart – is a psychopath, but his parents refuse to see the truth. Her antics escalate and conclude in a twist ending that I did not see coming at all.
My Sister Rosa features an incredibly diverse set of characters, including an African American family, a Korean American family, a gender-fluid friend, two lesbian couples, atheists, and Christians. Interspersed within the story are important conversations about race, gender, religion, feminism, and identity. It was a surprising but welcome addition to the novel – I enjoyed reading about the interactions between different identities and how they learned from each other.
But while Rosa is creepy enough at times, such as when she sneaks into Che’s room at night to watch him sleep, a novel I expected to be about a relentlessly terrifying little girl was actually a story that largely focused on Che’s admiration and sexual desire for Sojourner. The character of Rosa had a lot of potential for thrills and chills, but the story didn’t deliver the way I hoped it would.
Che, however, delivers in all the ways that a 17-year-old kid should. His sarcasm and banter with his friends was fun to read, and combined with his insecurities about his pimples, know-it-all-ness about psychiatry, and wet dreams about Sojourner, Che felt like a real teenager just trying to find his way in the world.
I recommend My Sister Rosa to people – especially teenage guys – who want to read a relatable voice and feel the full intensity of frustration, confusion, and desire, as well as those interested in a diverse cast of characters. I also recommend this book to people looking for an introduction to psychological thrillers and horror novels in general. For those experienced in the genre, this probably won’t do much for you. My Sister Rosa is a modern take on the cliché of the creepy little girl and features characters that are a breath of fresh air.
Larbalestier, Justine. (2016). My Sister Rosa. New York: Soho Teen. 2016. Print.
By Hattie Xu