Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sleep Pale Sister by Joanne Harris

I have sat on this book for about a week without posting about it because I am unsure what I want to say. I liked Joanne Harris' story, but I didn't love it. It read like a dark Victorian-style Gothic with a slight fantastical twist; a novel idea but it seemed to run out of steam.

According to the introduction, Joanne Harris' early novel fell out of production and has only recently been republished as a result of fan demand. Harris made minimal if any changes except for a new cover. She mentions more than once that the book finally has the cover it deserves.

The story in Sleep, Pale Sister revolves around a dysfunctional Victorian couple. Henry Chester, the husband, is a painter who marries Effie, his much younger model. Rather than seeing her as a real person, he sees her as the epitome of the portraits he has painted. She is unworldly, growing up in the narrow confines of her limited experiences, but she yearns for more personal freedom.

The crux of the book centers on the couple's disparate views of personal/sexual interaction. Henry is horrified at the idea of a woman having, much less expressing, sexuality. So much so that the reader learns relatively horrible things Henry has done to other women who do not gel with his ideal stereotype. Effie, needless to say, chafes under his intense scrutiny and eventually revolts in an unexpected way.

The plot was not particularly complex. The outcome was not unexpected, but also not a happy ending. What I liked about Sleep Pale Sister was the study of taking Victorian mores to their excess. Discussions of hysteria and the use of laudanum to control emotionally "weak" women rang true to the era. It took the historic issue of female sensibilities and pseudoscientific means of dealing with them and personalized it.

But, the book felt sophomoric. Harris' other works are so much better: more developed and more nuanced. I maybe wouldn't use that description if I didn't know the book was a reprint of one of her earlier works but knowing it is, I can see the difference. I'm glad I read Sleep Pale Sister, but I don't know if I would have liked the book if I hadn't read other works by Joanne Harris before.

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