I suspect SISTERS OF MERCY doesn’t quite qualify as crime fiction but as it is at least ostensibly about a missing person’s case and much of it is made up of letters written by its main character from prison I have decided to incorporate it into my personal, broad definition.
On the surface it is about the disappearance of an English Grandmother, Agnes Moore, who goes missing in a Sydney dust storm, having travelled to Australia to meet the sister she never knew she had until the death of their father, who lost track of Agnes while away at war, a few weeks earlier. But really this is the story of that sister, Snow Delaney.
When we meet her Snow is in prison for a crime that is not revealed until near the end of the novel. She writes a series of letters to Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett, one of the journalists who covered her trial. At first she seeks corrections of fact but slowly reveals her life story in an effort not to justify, she doesn’t feel like she has done anything warranting justification, but to provide evidence of the proof of her version of events. And, almost irrespective of whether you believe Snow’s version or not, it’s a fascinating story. Snow moves from a childhood overshadowed by a cold, undemonstrative mother to an adulthood lacking emotional maturity and ends up in a most unusual place.
I loved the character of Snow though she is not loveable in herself. But she is a character impossible to ignore. Is she evil? Self-deluded? Coldly calculating? Pragmatic? Disturbed? Somewhere in the middle? As a young nurse she trains to work with people who have been living in mental institutions for many years as there is a government push to identify people who can live in the outside world. But the lofty ideals of the program are at odds with the reality of dealing with the severely mentally disabled and Snow is soon disheartened. However, her involvement does lead to her meeting Mark Delaney who will become her lifelong partner. A gambling addict and philanderer Mark doesn’t seem like much of a catch but is the closest thing to an object of affection in Snow’s life. As Mark never does a day’s paid work Snow must work to support them both and Mark’s addiction. Ultimately the couple become foster carers for severely disabled children, a task they seem, at least in Snow’s eyes, uniquely suited to.
We do, via Jack Fawcett, learn a little about Agnes Moore and the somewhat lackadaisical search for her though neither of these characters is even half as fully realised as Snow and that, for me, was something I was looking for to offset the overwhelming nature of Snow and her view of life.
The essay that prompted me to read this book discusses a legitimate concern that could be levelled at the book which is derisive about several almost sacred cows. I don’t share all of those concerns though certainly can see why the essay’s author is troubled by certain aspects of the book. But we seem to agree that even with, or perhaps especially because of, these imperfections it is a book worth recommending. The issues that Overington raises in it are incredibly important and, as is often the way, largely ignored by society in their day-to-day application. It is true, for example, that few people would argue against the principle that the severely disabled (those who require around-the-clock care) should be looked after. But when it comes to the practicalities few of us know – or , if we’re brutally honest, really want to know – just what hard, exhausting graft is involved. Is our collective abdication of responsibility to faceless bureaucrats something we can, or should, be able to live with? Overington’s depiction of an overwhelmed system bogged down in assessing gradations of disability and arbitrarily assigning ‘adequate’ levels of entitlement to those who manage to qualify is harsh but, to my second-hand knowledge, realistic.
There are other elements that I could highlight if I had the time but I hope I’ve given you enough of an impetus to want to read this unsettling but compelling book. You won’t regret it.
Reading this book also reminded me why I hate the phrase women’s fiction, a subject I ranted about at my other blog
This is the 15th book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2012
My rating: 4.5/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Random House 
Length: 246 pages
Format: eBook (ePub)
Source: I bought it
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