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