Set on a “barely habitable” island off Scotland’s Isle of Skye, S. K. Tremayne’s “The Ice Twins” is like a bowl of Cullen skink, the soup that often warms a Highland lunch. A comforting stew of smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and cream, Cullen skink puts to good use what’s in the larder.
Likewise, “The Ice Twins” draws from other, similar thrillers on the shelf. Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” and Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle,” which also is set on an island off Scotland’s coast, come to mind. And as far as genres go, “The Ice Twins” is by turns a thriller, a mystery and a ghost story. Tremayne, the pseudonym for a London journalist and best-selling novelist, melds all these ingredients, coming up with enough twists, insights and chilly moments to make the story his — or her? — own and to keep a hungry reader savoring every spoonful.
Lydia and Kirstie, the identical twins of the title, were born on a frigid day in winter. For that, and for their “ice-blue eyes and snowy-blonde hair,” their grandfather dubbed them “the Ice Twins.” According to their mother, Sarah, a freelance journalist, they became “part of the perfect . . . family.” Then, one afternoon from the balcony at Sarah’s parents’ home, 6-year-old Lydia fell to her death.
Thirteen months later, the once “pristinely optimistic” family is falling apart. Sarah is deeply depressed. Her husband, Angus, an architect, has been fired for hitting his boss. Two mortgages stand against their apartment. And so they decide to take their surviving daughter and move to Torran Island, which Angus inherited from his grandmother. “Fresh air, mountains, sea lochs,” Sarah thinks as she rushes to tell Kirstie the news of their move. The surviving twin wheels on her: “Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy? Kirstie is dead. It was Kirstie that died. I’m Lydia.”
As Angus and Sarah struggle to make a rat-infested lighthouse keeper’s cottage on Torran livable, Kirstie continues to insist she’s Lydia. At a dinner party, she shrieks when, she insists, she sees her dead sister through a window. And she rages at her parents: “You keep saying she’s dead but she comes back to play with me, she was here, she was at school, she plays with me, she is my sister, it doesn’t matter if she’s dead, she’s still here, still here, I’m here, we are here — why do you keep saying we’re dead, when we’re not we’re not we’re not.”
The child’s strange behavior eventually sends Sarah to consult a Glasgow psychiatrist. He advises that identical twins are just that: identical. And so, even if the dead child had not been cremated and fingerprints or DNA samples were available, they would match those of the survivor. He also advises that “when one twin dies, the other will take over their characteristics, becoming more like the twin that died.”
So is the living twin, Kirstie, pretending to be Lydia, or possessed by her? Or did the shocked parents misidentify the victim of the fall? Tremayne allows clues about who that victim really is to shift from Lydia to Kirstie until the reader, thumbing back over scenes to clarify matters, feels he’s watching Linda Blair’s spinning head in the film version of “The Exorcist.”
Tremayne develops Sarah’s and Angus’s points of view in alternating chapters, pointing up yet another question of identity: Is the author male or female? This reviewer would wager that Tremayne is a woman. The expansive chapters from Sarah’s perspective display a keen, instinctive sense of a nurturing mother. Angus, who gets less space, is not so nuanced or well developed a character — he just seems angry. However, I would happily be proved wrong on this question.
The tale plays out on Scotland’s west coast, and although Tremayne’s descriptions precisely and accurately detail a stark, dramatic region “as remote as you could get in Great Britain,” the prose, except for a few haunting images, is spare. One wishes the author had enhanced this modern Gothic thriller with a richer, more colorful style.
There is, as well, a predictability to the plotting, even if at times it’s oddly satisfying to see what’s coming. This is particularly the case at the end. A story set on an island known informally as Thunder deserves a thundering finish, which Tremayne deftly serves up, along with a touching coda that would play well on film. Reading the final paragraphs, the reader imagines a helicopter shot pulling the camera up and away from the storm-tossed island as the melodramatic theme music soars.
Bartell is an arts and travel writer based in Manhattan.
THE ICE TWINS
By S.K. Tremayne
Grand Central. 306 pp. $26