‘The Lost Sister’ – Kathleen McGurl
Three sisters. Three ships. One heartbreaking story.
1911. As Emma packs her trunk to join the ocean liner Olympic as a stewardess, she dreams of earning enough to provide a better life for both her sisters. With their photograph tucked away in her luggage, she promises to be back soon – hoping that sickly Lily will keep healthy, and wild Ruby will behave. But neither life at sea nor on land is predictable, and soon the three sisters’ lives are all changed irrevocably…
Now. When Harriet finds her late grandmother’s travelling trunk in the attic, she’s shocked to discover a photo of three sisters inside – her grandmother only ever mentioned one sister, who died tragically young. Who is the other sister, and what happened to her? Harriet’s questions lead her to the story of three sister ships, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, and a shattering revelation about three sisters torn apart…
When you have knowledge of the period of history that a book is set in, it does not make it more predictable. Instead, I was more gripped, wanting to know how Emma and her sister’s fates would be decided in a tragic time of sea travel.
This dual time-line follows seventy year-old Harriet as she prepares to downsize to a smaller property. Living on her own, readers discover that not only does Harriet need to sort through her husband’s trinkets, but also those of her mother and grandmother. It leads to a discovery of a significant family photo featuring her grandmother and two other girls. Although Harriet was aware of one sister, the third girl is a complete mystery. As Harriet starts to make her investigations, it soon becomes clear that her own family is divided and through the present-day narrative, we learn why Harriet’s daughters, Sally and Davina, are estranged; how she and her brother Matthew have drifted apart; and that Harriet is isolated on more levels than we initially realised from losing her husband.
Moving to 1911 and this is where the story of Emma and her sisters unfolds. The excitement of transatlantic travel by luxury liners is central to Emma and her story. Living close to the Southampton docks, Emma firmly decides that cleaning hotels is not for her, but wishes to pursue her dream of being on the sea. Signing up as a stewardess on the ‘Octavia’ proves to Emma that this is the life she dreams of, even if it does mean she is leaving behind her two younger sisters – Ruby and Lily. Family circumstances change and when the opportunity arises of working on ‘Titanic’s’ maiden voyage, Ruby immediately signs up. Emma, promising her mother to protect her sister, follows in her sister’s footsteps. However, as we know, this will not be a successful trip.
As the novel progresses, the narrative effortlessly switches between Emma and Harriet. I loved how seamless this was and, watching events unfold, could not believe how many parallels are made between the different generations of this family. Emma’s narrative was particularly gripping because of my history awareness but, at the same time, I loved being with Harriet on her journey of moving, learning about her grandmother and supporting her daughters. Her estranged relationship with Davina was very touching but, the storyline of her grandson was more harrowing. Therefore, I thought this novel encouraged a range of emotions as you really get to know this family to the core.
I found that I could not put this novel down! I was desperate for Harriet to learn more about the sisters in the photograph. At the same time, I wanted to see her family reconciled and that Harriet would not be as isolated (even if she did not necessarily feel it). Furthermore, I was enthusiastic to see how Emma’s travels would unfold and, throughout the story, was constantly picturing scenes from the Titanic movie. (And, yes, a certain DiCaprio might have featured in those imaginings too!) When the story moved to the First World War, I was interested to see how Emma would participate in the war effort and found that I learnt even more as a result of McGurl’s research and writing.
McGurl’s writing is vivid and captures the excitement of sea travel in the early twentieth century. On the other hand, the writer carefully explores the importance of family connections and how we should not drift apart, despite the differences we may have. Whilst the novel does end on a note of optimism, I could not help but feel a little emotional about all the ties coming together. Perhaps, for me, the story was over too soon: I had felt so invested in the past and present stories that I wanted just that little bit more to read.
I really enjoyed this dual time-line story and felt completely connected to the characters. Laughing and smiling with them, I also felt their sadness and tragedies as well. I think this is a book that will stay with me for a while.
Kathleen McGurl lives in Christchurch, UK, with her husband. She has two sons who have both now left home. She always wanted to write, and for many years was waiting until she had the time. Eventually she came to the bitter realisation that no one would pay her for a year off work to write a book, so she sat down and started to write one anyway. Since then she has published several novels with HQ and self-published another. She has also sold dozens of short stories to women’s magazines, and written three How To books for writers. After a long career in the IT industry she became a full time writer in 2019. When she’s not writing, she’s often out running, slowly.
Social Media Links:
Twitter: https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl @KathMcGurl
With thanks to HQ Digital, NetGalley and Rachel’s Random Resources for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.