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Sister Sebastian’s Library tells the tale of a nun on the run

Phil Whitaker's book is a fast-paced missing-person investigation that explores the complexities of sisterly strife.

Sister Sebastian’s Library is the fifth novel by Phil Whitaker, a writer with a dual personality: both a novelist of many years’ standing (his debut, Eclipse of the Sun, was published in 1997) and a practising GP. He can be found in these pages dispensing wisdom regularly as the NS medical columnist.

Whitaker’s specialist knowledge is evident throughout his latest book. It is there in the research interests of his central character, Elodie O’Shea, who is a molecular biologist attempting to prevent malaria by genetically manipulating mosquitoes. And a surgical procedure – an abortion that goes wrong – is the source of the problem between Elodie and the “Sister Sebastian” of the title. At the start of the novel, the latter has gone missing and Elodie has arrived in an unnamed African country to seek the woman who, before taking her vows as a nun, was her sister Bridie.

As her quest proceeds, Elodie discovers the extent of the religious tensions in the country and begins to realise that there may be more to her sister’s disappearance than she had assumed from her professorial office at University College London. Yet over this perfectly serviceable thriller plot Whitaker has laid the existential angst of the more “literary” novel.

Should Elodie leave her dull and angry husband, Adam, for the sexy and stateless Henning, an official with the World Health Organisation? Will she ever manage to eradicate malaria? And why did her sister fill her chapel in a remote African city with stacks of battered English-language textbooks?

Pleasingly, many of these questions are left unanswered, though some potentially fruitful themes – the conflict between Christianity and Islam, for instance – are underexplored. The best of this novel, however, is in its structure. While maintaining the fast-paced missing-person investigation, Whitaker also manages to weave in a separate timeline of Elodie’s memories of her sister. There are snapshots of their parents’ abusive marriage, an awkward 18th-birthday disco and euphoric experiences watching the electronic dance act Faithless. In these scenes from past lives, the complexities of sisterly strife are presented on a vividly human scale. 

Sister Sebastian's Library
Phil Whitaker
Salt, 224pp, £8.99​

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.