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2012 HIGHLIGHTED REVIEW: SISTERS OF MERCY BY CAROLINE OVERINGTON

SISTERS OF MERCY
Author: Caroline Overington
Bantam Australia RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

Sisters Of MercyEngrossing yet discomforting, Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington had me hooked from start to finish and offered a truly chilling character that rivals Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery.

Presented as the haunting story of two sisters, one who goes missing and the other who is behind bars, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a simple whodunit/mystery. The tagline on the cover suggests as much: How can one woman simply disappear? Through brilliant characterisation, it soon becomes clear that Sisters of Mercy is much more than that, rendering the tagline somewhat misleading.

Upon her father’s death, Snow Delaney finds out that she is not the sole beneficiary of her father’s unexpectedly generous estate – she has a much older sister, Agnes, who lives in England. With great reluctance, she follows through on her late father’s wishes to meet Agnes. When her sister disappears the next day, the same day Sydney was eerily blanketed in red dust, Snow is caught up in an investigation that ultimately leads to her imprisonment.

It’s just the kind of story the media loves and reporters are all over the story – including crime reporter Jack Fawcett. When he receives a letter from Snow telling him he’s got his facts wrong, he’s intrigued; perhaps he will be the one to uncover the truth about Agnes’s disappearance. So begins an unlikely and short-lived correspondence between the two, with Snow protesting her innocence and claiming she’s been unfairly judged; and Jack digging deeper to find the real truth.

In talking about her inspiration for the book, Overington (a journalist of more than 20 years) says she has met some women “who might be described as evil … who seem to care for nobody but themselves”. The character of Snow, she says, “stands for” these women. Snow is revealed, in part through Jack’s investigation, but more so by her own hand, to be a cold, narcissistic woman. Although she is a trained nurse who looks after severely disabled children, she lacks nurturing skills, empathy, compassion and mercy. Here’s a sample:

People say that I don’t seem to care that my sister went missing after coming all the way out to Australia to visit me, but think about it from my point of view. I didn’t want her to come out in the first place.

As a character, Snow is unsettling – it’s uncomfortable as a reader to be drawn into her warped mind. Any thought of being on her side (what if she’s been framed?), of thinking that maybe there is some horrific thing in her past that has shaped her, is quickly dismissed by the reader. Agnes, her long-lost sister is a complete contrast. Not that she appears much – her character does little more than act as a facilitator for Snow’s story. Jack also appears as a counter to Snow – both are engaged in telling stories and therefore both deal with truth as they know it. However, Jack’s character takes a back seat to Snow’s domineering character; the reader is left knowing little about him, other than what he reports. Is this clever manipulation on the part of the author – under-develop one character so your emotions are bound to be stimulated by the more dominant character?

Sisters of Mercy is a challenging and provocative read that has the potential to polarise readers with its controversial take on the effectiveness of the justice and welfare systems. Overington’s views on the lack of support for some people in our society – in this case, severely disabled children and their parents – are made clear in a way that she never could have in journalistic writing. Perhaps this book serves as an outlet for her frustrations? Regardless, Overington is a gifted writer with a true knack for storytelling – some say she is Australia’s answer to Jodi Picoult. I say she gives Picoult a run for her money. I recommend this book highly, in the knowledge that some will find Snow’s voice hard to hear, and look forward to reading more from Overington.

Trivia: The aptness of Snow’s name to her character is clear – both are cold. However, snow is often described as pure, which is what the name Agnes means (it also means chaste). So, consider this quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, though shalt not escape calumny”. Calumny means a false or malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something. Tell me that’s not ironic.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.

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