This book is about guilt. It's about the burden of living with guilt for the rest of your life.
For although David was cleared of the murder of his girlfriend, Emily, he still has to learn how to face every day with the knowledge that he did, in fact, kill her, just by accident:
"I think of it as an abyss. Before, you're standing on one side of it, with everyone else - and you don't even see it. And then, after, you're on the other side.
"And it doesn't matter," I said with difficulty. "It doesn't matter how you got there, or whether you never meant to do anything so horrible. What's true every day is that you are on the other side. Alone. Knowing -"
"That you could do it again," finished Lily softly. "That it's possible."
Anyone in this world can have the power of life and death over someone else. It's horrible, but true. All you need do is take it. And once you have - there is no going back.
For David, you see, it makes no difference whether he actually intended to kill Emily or not. He still lives with the fact that he did kill her. And the same goes for his young cousin, Lily. We hardly need to know whether she actually killed her sister or not. She is still consumed with the same guilt and the same need to punish herself:
In my arms I felt Lily turn. She saw the sheet of flame before us, and for an instant she stilled. Whimpered. Her arms tightened around me. "I have to die," she said urgently. "I killed Kathy. And I meant to do it. I'm a murderer."
"I know," I said. For a bare instant our eyes met, hers now wide with astonishment and - something else. Something I didn't have time for. "But your punishment isn't to die. It's to live with it. Like me, Lily."
I found this story absolutely terrifying. David moves to Massachusetts to lodge with his aunt and uncle and cousin, in an attempt to escape from the local notoriety of his trial, while he completes his senior year of high school. There he becomes involved in a difficult and hostile relationship with his eleven year old cousin, Lily. Of course, he is ill-equipped to deal with this situation because he is totally pre-occupied with his own remorse. But Lily is compelled to test his forbearance. She needs to know whether someone who has killed once is likely to do it again.
It's a dangerous time for both of them, but the simple truth is that it takes one to know one:
"We'll help each other," I said. "When it hurts, when we're afraid, if we're ever tempted - we tell each other. I'll help you. You'll help me. We won't use the power we have. and we'll find ways to do good. To ... to atone."
And there you have it, their life-long self-imposed punishment - to live with the knowledge of what they've done, and their remorse.
What can I read next?
If you enjoyed The Killer's Cousin I think you might like to look at this one by David Belbin:
Another book for mature readers with a strong psychological element is this one by Jan Mark:
Or you could look at this book, about a very confused boy trying to get on with his life despite being beaten by his stepfather. It is by David Klass:
Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:
- The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin (Score: 100%)
- The Diamond Girls by Jacqueline Wilson (Score: 93%)
- Small-Minded Giants by Oisin McGann (Score: 93%)
- Noodle Head by Jonathan Kebbe (Score: 93%)
- Undercurrents by June Oldham (Score: 93%)
The Killer's Cousin features in these lists: