Monday, February 24, 2014

Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington

I was introduced to Caroline Overington's writing last year when I read No Place Like Home and was impressed by it. It has taken a while, but I have finally got around to reading another book by her, and I was once again impressed.

On it's surface, Sister of Mercy tells the story of two sisters who learn of each others existence late in their lives. Agnes was a war baby who was separated from her parents during the war years and was never reunited with them. She was sent to Australia as part of the Forgotten Australians but had returned to England, raised her family and generally lived a good life. For those who are not aware, the Forgotten Generation were hundreds of children who were removed from their families, including indigenous children and British children who were sent to Australia after WWII. For the most part, these British children were orphans being sent to a new life, but there are stories of kids who were not really orphans being taken from their families and never saw them again. There are also some terrible stories of the abuses these children were subjected to. Click on the link above for more information regarding these children.

Snow Delaney was a much younger child born to the same parents, but a world away from the life that Agnes lead. She didn't actually know anything about Agnes until her father's will was read and it was revealed that one of the conditions of the will was that Agnes was to have the option to receive half of the sizable estate. At the very least Agnes and Snow were to meet which brings us to the central premise of the book.

Agnes and Snow meet briefly and then the next day Agnes is due to get on the plane to go back to her family but the flight is delayed due to a severe red dust storm. When the plane finally arrives in London, Agnes is not on it and there is no trace of her in Sydney. Whilst at first there was some action from the authorities it doesn't take long before the story slips out of the public consciousness.

Once again Overington chooses to use a male narrator who is somewhat removed from the direct action. Jack Fawcett is a journalist who is sent to a police briefing about the missing woman, and after speaking to Agnes's daughter agrees to try to find out more. We get to hear Jack's thoughts as his investigation progresses and also his reaction to a series of letters from Snow which she starts to write in response to one of his articles which she thought was erroneous. We know early on in the book that Snow is in prison but it takes some time to find out why that is the case.

As she begins to tell Jack her story we find out about Snow's life as an only child (as far as she knew anyway) in an unhappy house in suburban Melbourne. We learn of the dysfunctional relationship with her mother, her relationship with boys as a young girl, about how it was that she became a nurse caring from the disabled, firstly in an archaic institution and then later providing respite care in the home she shares with her partner Mark.

What is interesting about Snow as a character is that she seems to lack any moral compass. She is remote and detached and can't seem to see what would obviously be a morally objectionable issue to any normal person. And yet, there is a fair degree to which you could easily believe that Snow is as much a victim of choices and circumstances as any of the people that she cares for. Has she been abandoned time and time again by the people who should have been placing controls on her behaviour, whether that be her parents or the department who have licensed her to care for these disabled kids. Is she a person who lacks some of the fundamental emotional tools like empathy and compassion, or is that making an excuse for her?

One of the things that made an impact on me was the discussion about the fate of disabled people who were part of the deinstitutionalisation of care back in the 80s. Part of the reason is that in my current job I work for an organisation that is strongly involved in the care of disadvantaged people. There is a program that was set up especially in response to the conditions that were prevalent in the institution that Snow worked in. I had a brief discussion with the lady who started that program after reading the book and she talked about going into the institution and being completely and utterly horrified by the conditions in which these people were being kept. She had worked in similar institutions in another country for many years but she was shocked to see the dehumanisation of these people in the particular institution which is named in the book.

It was interesting how Overington contrasted those horrors with the care in the community model that was put in place at the time as a better model and shows that without the proper checks and balances being in place it was still possible for these people to be treated as much less than human. At the moment, there are major reforms happening in the care sector. It's probably an important lesson to keep in mind as all these changes occur to ensure that there are appropriate controls in place.

This isn't a book with a nice neat ending. Overington leaves the reader with enough information so that you can decide what you believe may have happened to Agnes on that fateful day without spelling it out directly.

Once again Caroline Overington takes the reader on a journey through complex moral issues without losing track of the fact that the reader needs a compelling story to frame those moral questions. I have already borrowed another novel by this author from the library.

Rating 4/5


Two sisters - one now missing, the other behind bars...

Snow Delaney was born a generation and a world away from her sister, Agnes.

Until recently, neither even knew of the other's existence. They came together only for the reading of their father's will - when Snow discovered, to her horror, that she was not the sole beneficiary of his large estate.

Now Snow is in prison and Agnes is missing, disappeared in the eerie red dust that blanketed Sydney from dawn on September 23, 2009.

With no other family left, Snow turns to crime journalist Jack Fawcett, protesting her innocence in a series of defiant letters from prison. Has she been unfairly judged? Or will Jack's own research reveal a story even more shocking than the one Snow wants to tell?

With Sisters of Mercy Caroline Overington once again proves she is one of the most exciting new novelists of recent years.