Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler, book review

This is a remarkable novel which brings glitteringly to life an obscure milieu.

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The Independent Culture

When a novel begins with the epigram “Words were invented so that lies could be told”, you know that you’re in for a fun, if bewildering time. The fourth novel (out of seven) by Karen Joy Fowler attributes the quote to its most intriguing character: the mysterious Madame Christophe, aka Ellen Smith, who on page 12 comes out as a black woman named Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Most of the novel is set in 1890s San Francisco, a place of seances and cults, high society and mean streets. Our chief protagonist – she can hardly be called a heroine – is Lizzie Hayes, who works in a home for orphaned children and voraciously reads novels. “Her breathless, romantic imagination … was entirely ridiculous in someone short, fat, and well past her middle age … since there was no way to keep the outer woman private, she generally kept the inner woman so.” Until, that is, she meets Mrs Pleasant, who brings Lizzie a strange, clearly distressed, five-year-old girl and asks: “Are you happy with your life?” What a question ….

British fans of Karen Joy Fowler may have come to her via last year’s Booker shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and though in a very different context, this novel also explores themes of family and alienation. For 1890s San Francisco is a dangerous place to be female, or to stand out. “These were women under glass,” thinks Lizzie, and each one reacts differently to being pinned like a butterfly in a case.

The problem with a novel this full of myth and obfuscation is that it’s damn hard to keep up. Who may be secretly related to whom? What is Mrs Pleasant’s relationship with the creepy Mr and Mrs Bell? Is their “House of Mystery” run on voodoo, are they all mad, or do they just make things up? A reader can probably take her pick.

In a postscript, however, Fowler admits that Mrs Pleasant is based on a real person, about whom there was much rumour but little historical fact. “If it appears plausible, I probably made it up,” she writes. “If it seems too strange to be true, I probably didn’t.” This is a remarkable novel which brings glitteringly to life an obscure milieu. Lizzie’s impression of Mrs Pleasant’s house is equally true of history: “[It] was as silent and dim as the bottom of a pond, though the lamps and mirrors and bits of glass sent random sparkles into it like flickering fish.”