Sister Noon is one of several books I’ve read recently that have promised adventure, magic, and mystery, and yet have delivered nothing but the drabness of the everyday. In some ways, I think that was the point. Minor spoilers below.
Sister Noon is the story of Lizzie Hayes, a spinster who works at the San Francisco Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home – an orphanage. Lizzie is a beautifully compelling character – relatable, pitiable, but with enough flaws to make her more three-dimensional than you might believe.
Sister Noon is also the story of Miss Mary Ellen Pleasant, a mystic figure straight out of the darkest fairy tale, part fairy godmother and part wicked Queen. In the very first chapter we see her magically transform from a respectable white society lady into a ‘coloured’ housekeeper living far above her means in the utterance of a few, terribly important words, and from that point onwards Mrs Pleasant never stops weaving her magic.
Sister Noon is also the story of Jenny Ijub, a tragic orphan brought to the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home by Mrs Pleasant, from a world she describes as nothing but opulent. Her past is as intangible as her future, and Lizzie finds herself irresistibly drawn to finding out more, even as her own reputation becomes at risk.
Sister Noon is lastly the story of a city, a city which, having only just risen up from the mud of the Bay, now appears to be on the brink of destruction. It is a city inhabited by red-headed kidnappers, evangelistic soothsayers, the green-armed spirits of the dead, and a host of colourful and engaging characters, all with secrets for the reader to uncover. Karen Joy Fowler based her narrative on real historical documents, and her dedication to her research shows – each and every character, no matter how little time they spend on the page, seems able to leap right out of it. The sights, the sounds, and the people of 1890’s San Francisco are all recreated in loving detail, from the attractively deranged Teresa Bell and her six (or is it seven?) children to the almost tangible rooms of the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home, the ‘Brown Ark’ itself.
Not only are the characters believable, their stories are, too, and this all feeds in to the uncertainty of which of them we, as the reader, are able to trust. There’s a notable lack of shoehorned romantic subplots, unless you count the ones Lizzie imagines for herself. In fact there’s an appropriate, if somewhat disquieting, lack of affection between any of the characters. Appropriate because the story is told almost entirely from the point of view of a woman who at 40, is still a virgin and has little-to-no romantic interest in anybody, and disquieting because one begins to wonder if anyone in this novel has ever felt something for another human being at all, or if they are all just exhibits in one another’s public zoo.
But the fiction of Sister Noon is where it begins to lose focus. Each and every character has an interesting story to tell, and yet too often that story is left hanging, unclaimed, upon its hook. I would like to be able to claim that this is the very point of the novel – that there is no magical juncture for the characters to approach, that they might well remain the same person they have been their whole lives, that the many fantastical stories about Mrs Pleasant are just that – stories – and I do believe that the plot points that can be resolved this way should have been. Nothing would be more fitting for the quote that hangs over the novel like a ten-tonne weight: ‘Words were invented so that lies could be told.’
And yet the most important stories, the stories of Lizzy, Little Jenny, and the City itself, are resolved with equal dissatisfaction for the reader. One goodreads review read:
I hoped some of the confusion and tangents and development of other characters along the way would lead to some sort of ah-ha moment at the end, but there was nothing.
and I’m inclined to agree. Compared to the lyrical, almost dreamlike prose of the rest of the book, the final few pages of Sister Noon read like the ending of LOST watched – as though everybody involved had become fed up and wanted to move on to other things. Perhaps it’s the nature of realism that the reader never gets the satisfying ending they were hoping for, but this ending, far from being bleak, or even ordinary, seemed to wrap up every plot point the way I wrap my presents at 3AM on Christmas Morning – hastily shoving them into gift bags, tying a ribbon, and calling it done. It’s a real shame that such an intriguing and vibrant novel had to come to an ending that was so uninspiringly dull.