Book Review: Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington

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It’s a little spooky-strange-coincidental that I read Sisters of Mercy straight after reading Amnesia by Peter Carey (see my book review from last week here). I wasn’t planning to. In fact, I had five other books sitting on my bedside table that I was planning to read before tackling this one. And the reason it’s a little spooky-strange-coincidental is that Sisters of Mercy is the book that Amnesia could have and should have been.

The similarities:
*Both books contain a Sydney-based journalist looking into the alleged crimes of a woman who, on the face of it, appears to be pretty difficult to empathise with.

*Both books contain female characters who basically don’t appear in the novels except through their respective confessionals – letters from prison in Sisters of Mercy and audio tapes in absentia in Amnesia.

*Both books contain stories of lives lived in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne with plenty of landmark name dropping.

*Both books blur the lines on the question of whether the alleged crimes were actually perpetrated by the women accused.

The differences:
*The Sydney-based journalist simply does what a good narrator should, which is tell the story without making it about himself (a huge downfall in Amnesia).

*Snow Delaney, the woman accused in Sisters of Mercy, despite appearing a little cold, is able to draw the reader into her version of events and even make them question whether she has actually done anything wrong (whereas Gaby Baillieux in Amnesia never accomplishes this).

*The cities and suburbs that Caroline Overington describes in Sydney and Melbourne were familiar to me as someone who has lived in and visited both for a significant portion of my life (whereas Peter Carey’s descriptions of supposedly the same places drew no sense of recognition).

*Sisters of Mercy was written simply and elegantly with none of the confused and pretentious overtones of Amnesia (and nowhere in Sisters of Mercy did I have to read about any of the characters digging a hole in the bush and taking a shat).

Snow Delaney is middle-aged, even though her name made me think she was younger, and upon her father’s death is informed by his lawyer that she has an older sister. The sisters have never met and didn’t know about each other until the lawyer’s contact. As a condition of the father’s will, the sisters must meet and agree on how the estate will be distributed.

Snow isn’t keen but has no choice if she wants what she believes she’s entitled to. Agnes Moore, her much older sister, travels from England to meet her, declaring she has no interest in receiving any money from the estate. They eat lunch at Snow’s Bondi home and Agnes returns to her hotel. The next day, CCTV cameras capture Agnes leaving her hotel at five in the morning and disappearing in a red dust storm that is blanketing Sydney. She hasn’t been seen since.

When the book begins, Snow is already in jail, although we’re not told why. She has written to crime reporter Jack Fawcett proclaiming several of his articles about her contained factually incorrect statements and he writes back, happy to publish a correction if she’ll be so good as to tell him what they were. And so begins their lengthy correspondence and his intensive investigation.

I read the entire book in one day and it’s a regulation length book, so that should say something about how easy and how much of a pleasure it was to read. There are two main characters, Snow and Jack, but it’s entirely Snow’s story and despite the cast of supporting characters with their own potential stories that could steal the interest, there is no deviation, there is no getting side-tracked and the story is pure because of it.

It’s not, however, the kind of story that is neatly wrapped up by the end of the book, so if you’re looking for a traditional crime genre book, you won’t find it here. And the lack of a neat ending wasn’t as poignant as perhaps it could have been, which is why I’ve withheld the fifth star. But it’s a very good book and yet again, I’ve found another Australian author with a back catalogue that I will happily explore.

To anyone who reads it, while you might not condone how Snow acts, I suspect you will be able to understand it in a twisted way. Highly recommended.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 16 October 2015

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