SISTER NOON must be good; it’s not every day you hear things from Kernel Morgan stating “my book of the year for 2015,” and “gothic novel by perhaps the greatest living novelist today.” WOW – huge claims from Morgan, you may recognise the author, Karen Joy Fowler, popular author probably most known for THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. I might have to suss this re-released novel myself. SISTER NOON is out now from the fine folks at Allen and Unwin Book Publishers, you will be able to locate this one in most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE online. Enjoy another fine review from Lady M……all the best……JK.
SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler is my book of the year for 2015. It’s one of those books that you don’t want to read too quickly, because you want to savour every part, but you can’t keep your hands off, because you are so invested in the fate of the rich tapestry of characters. SISTER NOON is a rare treat. It is a coming-of-age novel of a sheltered middle-aged woman, Lizzie Hayes, who works at an orphanage. It is also a coming-of-age novel of a city, San Francisco in the 1890s, as it is shaped by rumour, money, and casual racism.
Compelling and mysterious, Fowler uses the real historical figure of Mrs Mary Ellen Pleasant to weave together fragments of folklore and superstition with pure fiction to create a foggy sea-side gothic delight. Mrs Pleasant and the whispers of voodoo, blackmail, sex, and murder that followed her make for a stunning foundation in this turn of the century American tale. Mrs Pleasant is a beautiful woman with remarkable mismatched eyes – one blue and one brown – with “clouds of dark hair and rosy, satiny skin” who doesn’t seem to age. She has several pseudonyms, a mixed accent, an incestuous past, and a glow to her. She is a woman “born into slavery” who “became a white woman to escape,” and the life philosophy of “you don’t want to be the same person your whole life, do you?”
I find the concept of ‘passing’ to be truly chilling. Both in the queer community (straight-acting or passing for female/male), and with black, brown, native, or enslaved people passing for white in the era of the ‘one drop rule’ of colonial racial purity. In a society where class is defined by wealth, race, gender, and religiosity, those with the ability to blur the lines were perceived as a threat. In that regard it was (and still is) an exercise fraught with physical danger to ‘pass’ and fail ie the ‘gay/trans panic’ legal defence where being surprised by someone disclosing their identity is justifiable homicide.
The expression ‘Sister Night and Sister Noon’ describes sisters where one is dark and one is fair. The novel centres on the experiences of a fair-skinned person with some black ancestry and how such a person could potentially move about in an upper echelon of society pretending to be a white person. The truth would always precariously hang over this person’s head as a liability. To pass and be discovered would generate more ire than to simply be known as black. It is cheating the system and seeing behind closed doors.
SISTER NOON is about the illusion of reputation and respectability. Fowler, early on, simply says “Here are just a few of the things said about Mary Ellen Pleasant:” and lists off ten wild and wonderful pieces of gossip and urban legend including “She had a small green snake tattooed in a curl around one breast.” The story is separated into six parts: [Visits], [Visitations], [Teresa Bell], [Ti Wong], [The Good Manners Club], and [The Ogre Mother], and features the best use of a Prelude chapter, for forecasting the tone of a novel, that I have ever encountered.
Lizzie’s friend Mrs Putnam is asked if she was “there at the ball the night Mammy Pleasant turned coloured” and she replies “out of the blue, she just says it. I’m a colored woman, she says. I thought it was a joke, when I first heard about it. More and more people from the South were arriving then, with the war coming, so she must have known she’d be exposed. People from the South, they know what to look for. Once you were told, it was obvious. She was dark. We all knew she was Spanish or something.”
Lizzie has an over-active imagination from leading a dull life filled with the fantastical novels of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and Robinson Crusoe. The infamous Mrs Pleasant entering her life, sets in motion Lizzie encountering a series of odd objects and events. Her reaction to these life experiences form her as a person. Lizzie steps out of herself to evaluate the meaning of a creepy broken doll, magic tea, hearsay about public divorce cases and selling babies to “Chinamen,” ghosts and reflections, the House of Mystery, special cordial, the underground railroad for Negros, Christian Celestial orphans, black-outs and lock-ins.
Lizzie meets the charming Mr Finney, resilient little girl (of indeterminable racial origins) Jenny Ijub, and the good-hearted little boy Ti Wong. She becomes depressed after an outbreak of diphtheria, and she is forced to come to terms with skeletons in her own family closet. It is Lizzie’s character arc that we follow in this linear third-person narrative. It is Lizzie’s perceptions of Mrs Pleasant that we are presented with. At first it is a mish-mash of things that other people have said and news headlines, but as the novel goes on Mrs Pleasant is demystified and humanised in Lizzie’s eyes. Lizzie develops an ability to streamline information gleaned from the group-think of the people of San Francisco and form opinions based primarily on her own first-hand observations.
SISTER NOON was first published in the USA in 2001. After the success of Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Prize – SISTER NOON has been published in the UK in a new paperback edition for 2015.
SISTER NOON is a sprightly and sublime contemporary gothic novel by perhaps the greatest living novelist today. Fowler is known for writing on the lives of women and themes of alienation. In this novel she shows how alienating notoriety is, and how a societal outsider can at the same time be perceived as a powerful insider. It also shows how breaking down the mythology of our fore-mothers can help women discover meaning and value for themselves.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.
** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.