In The Spotlight: Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels address larger issues, institutions, and problems by bringing them down to a human level. That’s the sort of novel that Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy is, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that novel.

As the novel begins, we are introduced to New South Wales journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett. He’s asked to cover the sort of story he doesn’t usually cover: a missing person. It seems that a visitor from England, Agnes Moore, went missing during a severe storm. Her daughter, Ruby, has come to Australia to make an appeal for anyone with information to come forward. At first, Fawcett’s not really invested in the story, although he does his job. But then he learns something that piques his interest. It seems that Agnes had come to Australia to meet her sister for the very first time. That human-interest angle prompts Fawcett to do a few stories on the topic. And that prompts a series of letters from Agnes’ sister, Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney.

Snow is in prison for a crime that is revealed as the novel goes on. But she’s been following Fawcett’s coverage of Agnes’ disappearance, and writes to him because she’s convinced he’s got plenty of details wrong. Thus begins a correspondence between the two.

Through those letters, we get to know about the two sisters. Born several years apart, they’ve led very different lives. Agnes was born in the UK during World War II, and ended up in an orphanage. Later, she moved to Australia, then back to the UK as an adult. Fawcett finds out as he looks into this how and why she was placed in care, and why her parents lost contact with her. After the war, they moved to Australia, where they had Snow, and started new lives.

From there, readers learn about Snow’s life, mostly through her letters. From Snow’s perspective, she was at a disadvantage right from the beginning, being raised by an emotionally distant and troubled mother, and a father who simply couldn’t cope. Her parents’ divorce hasn’t helped matters.

As Snow’s story continues, she tells about her decision to train as a nurse, and about her first attempts to work with the severely mentally ill. The concepts of having her patients go out into the community, and of working to communicate better with them fail miserably. Still, she meets her partner, Mark, and the two move to Sydney

It turns out that Mark is addicted to gambling, and isn’t much interested in getting either help or a job. So, Snow has the bulk of the financial responsibility. That’s how they end up running Delaney House, a care home for severely disabled children. Saying much more about the plot would, as I see it, take away from the impact of reading the story. Suffice it to say that, as the story goes on, we learn what happened to put Snow in prison.

The letters Fawcett receives give readers a great deal of insight into Snow’s character. In her view, she’s perfectly justified in all of her choices, and is angrier at other people’s insistence on blaming her than at anything else. She’s genuinely surprised at the court’s decision to imprison her. Overington doesn’t outright specify whether Snow is sociopathic, psychopathic, emotionally completely immature, or something else. As we read her side of events, we see that things aren’t as simple, perhaps, as they seem on the surface.

And Overington uses Snow’s views to lay out some serious questions about the way we care for those most vulnerable. The accusations Snow makes, and the way she defends herself, raise serious issues about state and other care systems. And, as Snow moves from the idealism of the newly-trained nurse to the cynicism of her current perspective, Overington shows that there is plenty of blame to go around. This aspect of the book is stark and unvarnished. Some of it is very ugly and discomfiting, and the book certainly doesn’t make for light, easy reading. That said, the questions Overington addresses, and the issues raised, are important. In that sense, this is the sort of book that would likely prompt lively book-club discussions.

Although the issues Overington raises are arguably faced in a number of places, this novel is set distinctly in Australia – mostly New South Wales. The physical setting, the culture, and some of the language use reflect that context. You might say that the story takes a uniquely Australian look at a larger set of questions and problems.

The story is partly told from Snow’s point of view, through her letters (in first person). And as she tells her story, she sometimes goes back and forth in time, to provide background on a topic. She then returns to that topic with comments such as, ‘So, anyway…’ Part of the story is told from Fawcett’s point of view (also first person). Those parts of the story follow a more or less chronological timeline. Readers who prefer only one sort of timeline, and/or only one point of view, will notice this.

Sisters of Mercy uses the story of one person to explore some large and disturbing questions. It features a complicated main character who may not be sympathetic, but gives readers much ‘food for thought.’ And it’s set in a distinctive New South Wales context. But what’s your view? Have you read Sisters of Mercy? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 22 May/Tuesday, 23 May –  Fatal Enquiry – Will Thomas

Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Never Buried – Edie Clair

Monday, 5 June/Tuesday, 6 June – You  – Zoran Drvenkar


Filed under Caroline Overington, Sisters of Mercy

16 responses to “In The Spotlight: Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy

  1. Sounds intriguing, but I must resist – I’m getting perilously close to the dreaded 200 on the TBR! Interested to see you’re planning to spotlight You – a novel I still think about often because of its unique format.

    • Oh, I know all about that TBR challenge, FictionFan. I don’t even like thinking about how many books are on mine, let alone all the shiny new ones that keep coming along. And as to You, it was, well, you, who first told me about that one. Since your excellent review, I’ve been interested in it.

  2. I love the idea that the narrator isn’t terribly likable but gives a lot for the reader to think about. It’s that nuance that really gets me interested in a book. Did you find yourself concerned that the book was trying to get you to label Snow? What I mean is on a lot of book blogs, bloggers talk about the reader’s desire to diagnose mental illnesses, which is a huge problem and diminishes the dignity of people who do have mental illnesses.

    • You put that quite well, GtL. No, it’s not easy to like Snow. And yet, she is outright honest about some of the things that happen in the world of services for those with mental illness and disability. For instance, I can say without spoiling the story that she’s given a six-week course in helping the mentally ill integrate into the community, and working with them to communicate. When she gets her first job at a home for those with severe mental illness, she sees the disconnect between what she was told in the course, and what it’s really like to work with such people. We don’t have to like Snow to appreciate what her story says about services to the mentally ill.

      As to labels for Snow, no, I didn’t feel pressured to put a label on her. Certainly Overington doesn’t say specifically that Snow is a sociopath or something else. The reader is invited to consider how much of what Snow does has to do with her background, a mental issue, her own choices, and so on.

      • The conversation really picked up when Trump took office because everyone wants to label him with a​ mental disability, but doing so works against people with mental disabilities. I’m glad the book avoids trying to get people to label.

        • You have a point, GtL. It does a real disservice to people with mental disabilities to sling too many labels around. And I don’t think that happens in this book.

  3. Col

    I like the setting in particular, but I think I’ll pass on this one thanks.

  4. I’ve been waiting for this book to make it to the top of your Spotlight list having read two of her books, one a non-fiction The Last Woman Hanged and I Came to Say Goodbye a contemporary novel. Not being averse to multiple time lines or narrators I think I’ll be seeking this one out for the nuanced storyline. Thank you!

    • I think you’ll be glad you read it, Cleo. There are some very disturbing aspects to it. But there is, as you say, nuance to the storyline. And if you like Overington’s writing style, I think you’ll like this one.

  5. I’m beginning to enjoy stories more that the main character is quite as sympathetic as normal. It has to be a difficult task for the writer to create such a character with just enough edge people want to keep reading. This sounds like a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing, Margot.

    • I think you have a well-taken point, Mason. It’s not easy to create a character who’s not particularly sympathetic, but who’s interesting enough that the reader wants to know more. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Now I’m torn about this one: much of what you describe makes it sound just the kind of book I enjoy (letters, the stories from the past, a slow unfolding) but it also sounds as though there is some grim content. Perhaps when I’m feeling strong…

    • I know what you mean, Moira. There are aspects of the story that are very, very grim indeed. Overington does use the letters and those other plot tools effectively to tell the story, and in that sense, yes, I think you would like it. But when you’re ready for some ugliness in the story.

  7. Another female Australian author to look into, Margot! Thanks for putting this in the spotlight.

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