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12 June 2017

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.

By Caroline Crampton

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. 

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

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special