‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

8 thoughts on “‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon”

  1. I have read The Endsister in its original online version, but not yet the new edition (disclaimer: Penni is a friend of mine, and so is Sandra Eterovic, who is responsible for the cover illustration).

    I haven’t come across Come Back, Lucy! though I will certainly look out for it now, it sounds wonderful! Why are all the creepy ghosts called Alice? (My daughter’s name is Alice). I think the spookiest book of my childhood was Charlotte Sometimes.

    1. I wonder how different this new edition of The Endsister is from the original version?

      Apparently, Come Back, Lucy was published as Mirror of Danger in the US, so you might have more luck searching under that title. There’s a good, slightly spoilery review here. I read Charlotte Sometimes as an adult and was not at all spooked, but I think that was because there were so many typos in the edition I read that I was permanently distracted (at one point, a character climbed onto a “grass” roof, which really confused me until I realised it was a glass roof).

      1. WARNING TO OTHER READERS: SPOILERS AHOY
        In the first incarnation, Adelaide was a boy called Sydney. Else didn’t play the violin in the climax (I know, what was I thinking?) No adults, including Dave and Jonty believed in ghosts (but when I was researching between writing the first version and the second, I stumbled across a statistic claiming a staggering 1 in 3 adults in the UK believe in ghosts). In version one, Sibbi actually inherited the cottage on the hill and Olly didn’t decide to move back to Australia without Dave. In version 2, Olly is more clearly unhappy and a bit less ‘stand by your man’ -ish. The children do more sightseeing (I actually went to London between the two versions, so I went to the Natural History museum and walked around Buckingham Palace etc.) The whole book was in third person, and several of the scenes were written from Olly and Dave’s points of view. And they didn’t do the school tours in the online version. I think that’s everything! Oh, and the nightclub couple Else talked to were a girl and a boy online and gay in the rewrite. Oh, and Pippa was white and they didn’t have the conversation about Aunty May – I put that in because even though the family are devoted to Australia and identify as Australians I wanted to acknowledge that this wasn’t a straightforward position. I wanted to show Australia still has a lived colonialism that makes identity and belonging complicated.

        1. That’s so interesting, Penni – thank you! It’s nice to get these insights into your writing process.

          YES, SPOILERS HERE TOO:
          I liked the hints that the adults were aware of the ghosts, especially the bit where the lawyer very considerately tells the (totally invisible to him) ghosts about Dorothy’s death at the beginning! And that Dave and Pippa had ‘grown out’ of believing in ghosts.

          But I can’t imagine the climax of the story without Else and her violin! That tied everything together so perfectly.

          I would have liked to read more about the children’s sightseeing – it seemed a shame for them to be living in such a fascinating place yet not see much of it, although I can understand it makes more sense, plot-wise, to focus on what’s going on in the house (especially as Olly being stuck in the house is an important part of the family unhappiness/homesickness).

  2. Hi Michelle,
    I have been reading here for some time now (came for the Marlow books commentary, stayed because your blog is interesting) but this is my first comment.
    I adore Come Back Lucy. It’s one of my favourite children’s books and the television series was good too – which as we all know, isn’t always the case. It does such a good job of understanding how and why Lucy does what she does and manages to ratch up the tension very well.

    1. Hi Sue,

      Welcome to the blog! I’m happy to hear from another Come Back Lucy fan.

      I had a look at some bits of the television series on YouTube and I’m sure the opening credits alone would have terrified me if I’d watched them as a child. She turns from the mirror and HER FACE IS MISSING! Those child actors seem really convincing – Lucy, Alice and the other children are just as I imagined them.

  3. Ah! Both of these look excellent. Alas, The Endsister is not available from my usual sources. I might, however, be able to track down a used copy of Come Back Lucy. My appetite for spooky is never sated…

    1. The Australian Amazon site sells the Kindle version of The Endsister but I’m not sure if you’re able to access that from the US.

      I think you’d really like Come Back Lucy (aka Mirror of Danger in America)! I hope you can find a copy. But you will probably not find it as spooky as I did, because I am easily spooked.

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