Better off to Sleep, Pale Sister

Joanne Harris is most famous for her novel Chocolat (and the film version starring a scrumptious Johnny Depp – looking pretty much his hottest ever). But before she delved into the power of chocolate to release one’s inhibitions, she wrote Sleep, Pale Sister.

These are two very different novels, and if Chocolat represents Harris in full bloom, then Sleep, Pale Sister depicts the adolescent Harris – who is trying to be a writer, but not quite feeling inspired.

Sleep, Pale Sister is an overtly gothic tale told from a number of perspectives. Firstly, we have Henry Chester, a painter who is outwardly pious but has a predilection for very young girls. To cover this he hates all women – who like the biblical Eve, have been tainted and spoiled. When he meets Effie, a beautiful child who becomes his model, he trains her to be the perfect wife for him – and of course, keeps his real desires for his secret Thursday nights.

Moses Harper is a rival painter, a ladies’ man who is takes a fancy to Effie. The untouchable child-bride for too long, Effie passions are awoken. Then Fanny, the owner of the brothel both Moses and Henry frequent, embroils a naturally sensitive Effie into her own scheme of revenge, involving the spirit of her lost daughter, Marta.

This book was a list text, as it had been recommended to me by a student, although I am afraid to say that I much prefer the magic of a more mature Harris. A friend of mine described this book on her blog as “gothic by numbers”, and this description could not be more apt. The young Harris has tried to tick off all of your classic gothic accoutrements in this novel, making it messy, pedestrian and incohesive. Forgettable.


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