I’ve just finished reading Caroline Overington‘s latest novel, Sisters of Mercy, which is the tale of Snow Delaney and her long-lost sister, Agnes. Or is it? Because Agnes is missing, and in the course of the investigation, light is shed on Snow’s own shocking history and of her damaging impact on society’s most vulnerable children.
We had a chance to chat to Caroline about her inspiration for the events and behaviors described in the book that is incredibly eye opening and much more common than we think:
Diane: The stories that you bring to print are almost unbearable in their rendition of how cruel humans can be to one another, and yet none of your characters ever seem to realise they are in such destructive, dangerous waters. How do you manage to make them seem so innocent and yet so completely cut off from the rest of humanity?
Caroline: Human beings can be cruel to each other. And we, as a society, are appalled by that. At the same time, we know perfectly well that some amongst us are suffering, and yet we turn a blind eye. I don’t think it’s because we are callous. I think it’s because the problems are so overwhelming, and we have so many problems of our own. We assume that somebody else will fix it.
The main character in Sisters of Mercy is Snow Delaney, a nurse, who has been hardened by her experience dealing with tough patients, low budgets, and interfering bureaucrats. But is she also callous, and cold by nature? Also, while readers are quick to judge Snow, how much do each of us actually do for people who need help? So I guess when I’m writing about these characters, I’m writing about what we all know is going on, and yet we manage to pretend that it’s not.
Diane: You portray children as the victims of actions taken by their carers, sometimes they are the deliberate victims but most often they are unintentionally affected – it’s as if the adults don’t even realise what they are doing to the kids. Do you think there is a lot of this kind of behaviour going on that people don’t realise? Why and do you think it’s getting worse or it was always there and we just didn’t realise?
Caroline: We like to believe that all mothers and probably all women are, at heart, nurturing and giving and kind – but of course know it’s not true. There are some very awful people out there. There are also many children who don’t fit the mould of the delightful, dimple-bottomed baby, children with real issues, whose parents need real assistance, not bleeding heart theories.
Diane: Each time I read your books I am amazed at how many kinds of human failing there are. What gives you the strength to keep writing about these types of people?
Caroline: While I was writing Sisters of Mercy, I was also watching the debate about the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There are some people in government who really want to introduce a scheme, whereby parents who have a severely disabled child who need full-time care, who cannot feed themselves or go to the toilet, who need to be turned several times a night, and so forth, can get some real assistance, including respite, so they can do little things, like go to the shops and get the banking done, or so they can even go to work a few days a week, or just get a good night’s sleep.
And I was amazed by the strength of the parents in that situation, and like most people, I could hardly believe the politics and arguing that went on, about who should fund the scheme and when it should start and so on. Why should we be surprised when some people reach breaking point? As long as these kinds of injustices exist, I’ll keep writing about it.
Diane: A comment someone made to me is “why would anyone want to read about people like that?” What is it that you think makes people keep wanting to read the stories you, and others like you, write?
Caroline: I know! I used to be worried about it, too. I used to think, why can’t I just write a sweet love story?? The reason I can’t is that I’ve been a journalist for 20 years and I know that life isn’t a sweet love story. Not all the time. And I know my readers are strong enough to face real issues.
My books are about real issues – divorce, family breakdown, mental illness, poverty, pain – and these are real issues for real people. When people pick the books up, they think: this is real! They tell me, “I’ve been trying to explain this to people for years and nobody would listen.” They say, “We feel like nobody cares about us, like we don’t have a voice.”
I am happy to keep telling real stories, no matter how gritty they are.
Diane: Sisters of Mercy doesn’t paint the (unnamed) Department in a very favourable light. While Snow undoubtedly did what she did deliberately, it seems unlikely that any Department could have failed so completely in keeping track of the children they are meant to be looking after. This is the part of the story I find least believable, could a Department really lack that much oversight or is it a combination of a number of failings by the “Department?”
Caroline: It is hard to believe, and even harder to accept, but hundreds of Australian children have died over the years, despite all levels of government being well aware that they were at risk. You can find published reports on the deaths of Australian children who were known to the various departments that were supposed to be taking care of them:
The NSW Ombudsman’s (2011) biennial report of reviewable child deaths reviewed the causes and patterns of deaths of children who died of abuse, neglect, and circumstances suspicious of abuse and neglect and children who died while in care. There were 77 reviewable deaths of children identified as children who died of abuse, neglect, and circumstances suspicious of abuse and neglect or children who died while in care in the 2-year period from January 2008 to December 2009. Of these deaths, 20 children died as a result of abuse, 23 of neglect, 14 in circumstances suspicious of abuse or neglect and 20 while in care.
The Queensland Child Death Case Review Committee reviews those deaths of children known to the child protection system within 3 years prior to their death. In 2010-11 the committee reviewed the deaths of 65 Queensland children and young people, 17 (26%) who identified as Aboriginal. Of the 65 child deaths reviewed, 64 had some association with child protection services prior to their death. One child became known to child protection services due to the circumstances surrounding their death.
The Victorian Child Death Review Committee (VCDRC) reviews reports prepared by the Office of the Child Safety Commissioner relating to services provided to children who were clients of the Child Protection service at the time of their death or within 12 months prior to death. In 2010, the Department of Human Services referred 29 cases of children who had died and were known to child protection to the Child Safety Commissioner for inquiry (Victorian Child Death Review Committee, 2011).
For more information go to the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.
We cannot recommend this book highly enough, check out our review here and then go and pick up your copy stat.
Available now, Random House RRP$32.95