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Elegant psychological page-turner

Long-listed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, Consent by Annabel Lyon is a dark and twisty tale. At a time when public debate around the principle of consent has often centred on the sexual, the novel’s slightly lurid cover misleads. Lyon is actually intent on exploring the broader meaning of the word, in a cleverly interwoven story of two sets of sisters. In each case, one sister is incapacitated and the remaining sibling compelled to care for her. What appears to be an affecting domestic drama accelerates into a shocking and suspenseful reckoning with guilt and grief.

Lyon alternates between the sisters and their comfortably affluent lives in Canada. First, we meet Sara and Mattie, visiting Sara’s memories of her younger sister’s babyhood.

‘The baby doesn’t cry but Sara’s mother cries.’

She cries because baby Mattie is too quiet, and because she knows her daughter will grow up to be a woman with a child’s mind. The thought seed is planted, nurtured by her widowed mother over the coming years, that one day Sara will have to assume the mantle of care for her sister.

When that inevitable time comes, it’s doubly fraught. Sara’s mother suffers a fatal heart attack, and while making plans to move Mattie into a care home, Sara discovers that her sister has, shockingly and inexplicably, married Robert Dwyer, the family handyman. Convinced that Dwyer has ulterior motives and has duped her vulnerable sibling, Sara consults a lawyer and discovers that he has a string of petty convictions. If Sara has Mattie declared incompetent, the marriage can be annulled. Charges may even be brought if he’s found to have committed a criminal offence, such as assault.

Sara asks Mattie where Robert sleeps and her sister’s blushing, radiant face gives the game away.

‘Sexual assault,’ the lawyer says.

In twins Saskia and Jenny’s case, the playing field is more level, although Saskia feels that she resembles her twin ‘the way a raisin resembles a grape.’ Jenny is a natural charmer, breezing her way to a career as a chi-chi interior designer. Saskia is a student, slogging her way through a graduate degree. She is the ‘counterweight, the rock, the extinguisher,’ to Jenny’s wild blaze.

When a drunken and reckless Jenny crashes her car, her world shrinks to a hospital bed, where she endures locked-in syndrome, able to communicate only through blinking. As their parents begin to unravel with grief, Saskia must be there for her sister. The sister who stole both her high-school boyfriends ‘just because she could,’ and whose hairstyle and clothes Saskia has begun to adopt.

We don’t need Dr Freud to tell us that a trip to the analyst’s couch may be in order.

Here is where the siblings’ stories collide and the pace ramps up, as it becomes clear that one of the characters plays a pivotal role in both plot lines.

A novel that lingers in the mind, I was impressed by Lyon’s exploration of complex family relationships and the psychology of guilt, regret, and ultimately, revenge. An elegant psychological page-turner.

Consent by Annabel Lyon is published by Atlantic Books, 224 pages.

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