I think it’s only fair that I start with a warning. Lock the doors and turn off the phone, Caroline Overington has a new novel Sisters of Mercy. This is, on the surface at least, a story about two sisters – Agnes and Snow – who have only just learned of each other’s existence, and meet for the first time in Sydney in September 2009 – the day of the famous red dust storm that blanketed the city.
Snow, for all her life, considered herself an only child. Her parents, emigrants from London, didn’t even really seem to want her. Her mother would not let Snow cultivate friendships and her father seemed distant and unable to communicate much at all – probably fairly typical of post-war Australia. She has made her own way in the world, shaped by her childhood to never form deep connections with people around her, despite choosing a career in nursing. In contrast to her own home life, she goes on to devote her life to the care of others by setting up a facility for respite and longer-term foster care for disabled children in Bondi.
By contrast, her sister Agnes was left in an orphanage in London just before World War 2 by her then-unmarried mother and father. When she is not collected at the end of the war, the nuns sent her to a remote farm in Western Australia with several other orphans and given shelter, if not love, and a place in the world. Returning to England as a young woman, she married, and started a family to end up a devoted grandmother of 5, believing all the time that her parents were dead.
When Snow’s father dies he leaves the story of how he eventually married Agnes’ mother, and moved to Australia, with his lawyer, who has to break the news that Snow is not an only child and may have to share her inheritance with this long-lost sister. Snow is not at all pleased that someone might turn up on her doorstep demanding a share, someone whom she has no intention of starting a sisterly relationship with. So when, immediately after their meeting, Agnes never boarded a plane back to England, there are some suspicious overtones.
The story unfolds through a series of recollections of journalist Jack Fawcett, and letters that Snow has sent Jack – from prison. Caroline Overington lets you assume that Snow is in prison for the disappearance of Agnes and only by reading through her letters do you get a glimpse that Snow has a much more bizarre, and sinister behaviour pattern than that. The letters paint a picture of someone doing what she sees as best for the children – it is hard to tell if she is deluded or cruel. Coupled with her questionable taste in men and her inability to empathise with others, this is not a recipe for happiness. But for Snow, it’s not quite clear what happiness really is.
Sisters of Mercy isn’t really about Agnes, instead it’s about Snow, and her problems as evidenced by her treatment of the children in her care, as well as of herself. But the story of Agnes is indicative of Snow’s deeper problems. I can’t help but wonder if their lives had been different, if they had grown up together would things have turned out the same or are they a product of their upbringing. Caroline Overington’s storytelling is, as always, compelling, and excellent. As with any of her books, I would recommend giving yourself plenty of time to think about the story when you’ve read it, and you won’t be able to help yourself – you’ll finish it in as close to one sitting as you can imagine.
In case you missed it check out our interview with Caroline here, we ask her some hard hitting questions and you’ll be surprised by her answers, will get you thinking for sure!
Available now, Random House RRP$32.95