What’s troubling about Sisters of Mercy – and why it’s worth reading

While reading Caroline Overington’s latest novel, Sisters of Mercy, I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s famous 18th-century essay which depicted one solution to Ireland’s poverty: eating Catholic babies. I’m not sure I ever found the essay funny, and I’m not sure it was intended to be. But I remember reading that Swift was a very angry man. That’s the feeling I got from Sisters of Mercy.

Caroline Overington is either angry at a broken system or angry, full stop.

My guess from reading her novels is that Overington’s angry about welfare cheats, dole bludgers, gamblers, addicts, alcoholics, bleeding heart liberals, social workers and bureaucrats. She hates hypocrisy, political correctness and self-serving spin. She wants to tell it as it is, without bullshit, and part of her anger is directed at people who should get off their arses and work, bureaucrats who should take responsibility for their failures, governments who should stop enabling victim mentality and start implementing policies that force people to accept responsibility for their own lives, no matter what trauma, hardship, abuse and neglect they suffered in childhood. My suspicion is that she sees this as the only healthy, sane alternative to a welfare state that breeds resentment among hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who pay taxes, and well-meaning but misguided policies which create life- and initiative-sapping dependency among victims.

Reading Sisters of Mercy I found myself getting angry, too, but not, I think, about the same things as Overington. Rather, I found myself angry at her portrayal of characters in the novel, especially the central female character, Sally Narelle Delaney, known as “Snow”, at the way Overington manipulated my sympathies and made me withdraw my compassion for an essentially damaged – and damaging – figure.

Snow, the central “character” of the story, is a trained nurse who finds herself in charge of a house full of handicapped children – or “handi-capable” as Overington’s PC characters are reported to say. So cold and detached from reality is Snow, she appears to have no conscience; more, she lacks the barest insight into the heinousness of her own behaviour. Her lack of empathy is psychopathic, and all the more chilling as she sees the people she houses, not as victims, but rather as a responsibility she takes seriously, people whom she looks after with the utmost care – if we are to believe the tale Snow tells of herself through her self-justifying letters to the journalist, Fawcett, the other main figure in the novel. I say “figure” rather than “character” because he is never more than a mouthpiece for Snow, a vehicle for her story to come to light. But is Snow any more of a character? Or is she more a vehicle for Overington’s scorn?

There are reasons to doubt Snow is a true character. This isn’t a flaw in the novel, but rather an indication of the complexity of the narrative structure: the letters to Fawcett are the only way we get to know Snow – a narrative device, incidentally, typical of Swift’s 18th-century period – and there’s evidence that the self-portrait can’t be trusted, since Fawcett catches her out in a lie. Snow – along with her motivations and the truth, perhaps, of her missing sister – remains essentially unknowable. Therefore the reader can’t really feel empathy for her, the lack of which quality leads to Snow’s gravest crimes.

So what is so troubling about Sisters of Mercy? It isn’t just that Snow herself is so unsympathetic. Recently I wrote that I’d like to see more portrayals of women behaving badly in fiction written by Australian women; and the portrait Overington sketches of Snow is certainly that. So what made me so uncomfortable?

It’s a question of tone.

Years ago, as an undergraduate, I was taught a definition of tone as “the attitude of the writer to her subject matter and the feeling conveyed to the reader”. That’s the trouble I had with Sisters of Mercy: I couldn’t work out whether Overington’s scathing portrayal was meant to be satirical – even blackly humorous – or taken seriously.

If Sisters of Mercy is satire, it holds up to ridicule the bureaucrats who enabled Snow and her partner to milk the system, and portrays Snow herself as a kind of nightmare embodiment of the consequences of all those well-meaning, politically correct, bureaucratic decisions. But from what position are we as readers invited to judge? I personally know little of how to avoid abuses of the welfare system or to deal with the problems of looking after the disabled, government funding, and the consequences of neglectful childhoods, trauma and abuse. So who am I – are we – to ridicule those who try to solve these problems?

I also found it difficult to know the limits of Overington’s attack.

In Sisters of Mercy, Overington portrays a character deliberately contrasting to Snow, her older sister, Agnes who was taken away from her parents as a baby during the Second World War and raised in an orphanage. Agnes is shown to have grown up to be more well-adjusted than Snow who, by contrast, was born into wedlock to flawed parents. It might be a stretch to say that this contrast suggests Overington is critical of the Government for its apology to the “Forgotten Generation” of English child migrants, and it would certainly be a stretch from there to imagine that she sees the Government’s apology to the Stolen Generations as a useless exercise in political correctness, but somehow, I am left feeling that this may be exactly what Overington thinks. And I’m left feeling angry because I don’t get a strong sense that she has any real solutions, only derision.

But I don’t mind being angry.

I’d rather be provoked into thought than lulled into a false sense of self-satisfaction. That’s why I’ll be recommending Sisters of Mercy to my book group. This novel will polarise opinion, but the topics it raises are worth arguing about.

In a week when the so-called Left of Australian politics established a policy to excise the Australian continent from the Australian migration zone, Australia needs satire – and we need angry, engaged people. We also need disturbing, challenging, disconcerting and uncomfortable novels written by women. We need diversity of opinion. Only by opening up these difficult subjects to scrutiny will we be able to acknowledge the truth of what our government policies are doing in our names, and perhaps avoid the national fictions that we’re advocating human rights when – as Overington might well maintain about the very different situation depicted in Sisters of Mercy – it’s about funding or, worse, pandering to the lowest common denominator of ignorant and self-serving public opinion.

~

Thanks to Random House for the review copy. This review counts as Book 10/12 of my Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge. It has already been reviewed by Shelleyrae at Bookdout, and Shelleyrae has an interview of Overington and a book give-away here (closes November 11, 2012).

Random House/Bantam 2012
ISBN: 9781742750446

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