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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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia