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Tabula Rasa

My Sister Rosa

By Justine Larbalestier, Allen & Unwin, 2016

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

This book explores the problem of human goodness. How good people differ from the bad, what causes their behaviour, and the limitations on what any one person can do. It treats of goodness because, as ten-year- old Rosa explains, the people who don't care aren't the ones with the problem.

"I was born like this," she says, stating a fact. "But not because I lack anything – because I'm smarter than everyone else. Empathy stops you understanding the world. Empathy gets in the way."

She is talking to her seventeen-year-old brother Che, in whom she confides because she find this useful. Since her earliest childhood, Che has protected and taught her, just like an elder brother should. Through the endless series of relocations as their parents set up ethical businesses around the world, he has been her rock. He has also grown steadily more certain that there is something seriously wrong with her and that it's getting worse. That she is named for Rosa Luxemburg and he is named for a T-shirt sums up their parents, who are firm believers in the power of the individual to make a difference. Happy to accept their daughter has grown out of her earlier problems, they refuse to listen to Che. In fact, they are more worried about him: his reluctance to put the greater good of his father's work ahead of his own happiness, his taste for violent sports. And Che has indeed had jack of being separated from his friends back home in Australia, he's anxious about his interrupted schooling and training, desperate for a girlfriend and everything else you might expect in the circumstances. But now he is in New York and Rosa has told him she thinks it would be interesting to kill someone.

The suspense never lets up. From the moment she is plunged into Che's head to the final page, the reader plays the game of attempting to second-guess Rosa, of discerning Che's own paranoia from the genuine danger. It's a classic horror paradigm, made all the more effective by the lack of conventional scares. Despite his fraught situation, Che's head is quite a pleasant place to be. He comes across as genuinely nice and his travails are relatable. Moving to New York from anywhere is a challenge in itself and how he meets it, exploring his new home and his wonderfully varied new acquaintance, provides the book with a warm and vivid heart. Sojourner, whom he first sees boxing; Leilani, his sarcastic guide to the local scene; these are people worth getting to know. But Rosa is ever-present, sometimes behaving like an annoying little sister, sometimes like a small, blonde demon, and as each potential friend becomes a potential victim, Che is forced into making harder decisions. The reader is trapped by her own empathy into following this likeable young man down a very dark hole indeed.

There is no glibness here. Rosa's character has been created with (paradoxically) enormous care. She is a fully rounded, functioning individual who sees the world from a perspective that while alien, is not entirely out of reach. Sometimes, we can even grasp her frustration with the world she has to deal with while lacking the usual tools.

"I'm not sure I understand what love is. It's like good. No one's explained it clearly."

But this isn't Dexter. Psychopathy has become a cliché in literature as in cinema and television, but Rosa's youth preserves her from the usual pat explanations of sexual frustration and childhood trauma. Che turns to a physical explanation, something he can grasp and which offers a framework of diagnosis and containment. He toys with the paradigm offered by Sojourner and her mother, the pastor of a local church, of external forces of good and evil. He begins to dream of escape.

Is this a "young adult" novel? It is a substantial read, both in craft and volume, dealing with serious, ethical questions, that happens to involve young protagonists without any particularly special abilities. Che can't take down a more experienced opponent in the ring. Rosa may be a genius, but she is limited to the tools she has available. Like the mundane setting of parks and apartments, this limitation of action helps to ground the book. It also means there are no easy solutions.

By the time Che finally finds someone who can help him deal with Rosa, he has already broken the one rule that this person imposes. As the consequences unfold, with all the ghastly dignity of a Greek tragedy, the book returns to its central theme with the question, above all, of what constitutes betrayal. The ending may not be quite as bleak as another, well-known book about a psychopath in New York, but then, this tale starts with Rosa examining the exit.

 

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