Day 440: Sleep, Pale Sister

Cover for Sleep, Pale SisterA gothic novel that involves a haunting and characters in opium-fed delirium? What’s not to like? Unfortunately, there is quite a bit not to like in Sleep, Pale Sister, an early book by Joanne Harris.

In Victorian England, Henry Chester is a twisted, hypocritical man who maintains an upright, righteous reputation in society while justifying to himself his own dark secrets. He is an artist who loves to paint romantic pictures of virginal young women.

Henry has been unable to find a wife who meets his fastidious criteria, but one day he spots a young girl of pale, ethereal beauty in the park. He pays her family to allow him to paint her and eventually decides that, even though she is yet too young to marry, he will raise her to be the wife he wants, someone passive, docile, and asexual.

Unfortunately, he is doomed to eventual disappointment, for when he finally weds her, he finds his young wife, Effie, has married him for love, and her very ardor on their wedding night disgusts him. Soon, she is an ailing wife whom he keeps drugged with opium, and he takes his pleasures elsewhere.

Sitting in church one day, Effie finds she can lift herself out of her body at will and look at those around her from above. Whether this is an effect of the opium is unclear, but in these states she seems to see and hear things that she should not know about.

At an exhibition of Chester’s paintings, Effie meets a rival artist, Mose Harper, who is struck by her beauty. Mose is a total scoundrel who dislikes Henry, so he sets out to seduce Henry’s naive wife. Mose soon finds himself with an unexpectedly passionate lover.

These three characters alternate the narration of the novel, but there is a fourth voice, Fanny Miller, the madam of a whore house who has her reasons for wanting revenge against one of her clients. As soon as she is sure which client it is, she will know what to do.

And I also hinted at a ghost.

Almost everyone in this novel is vile. Effie is the most sympathetic character, but she is too submissive to Henry and too naive about Mose to really capture us. Essentially, she has very little dimension to her character, is too easily bent to the will of another to be very interesting.

The setting in the Victorian era gives Henry almost complete control over Effie’s fate, and he is soon planning a way to rid himself of an inconvenient wife.

5 thoughts on “Day 440: Sleep, Pale Sister

  1. Carolyn O December 10, 2013 / 12:22 pm

    Yikes! How was the writing? Was it just the vileness of the characters that got in the way of your enjoyment?

    • whatmeread December 10, 2013 / 12:25 pm

      Harris is generally a good writer, but this book strikes me as possibly a very early one. It wasn’t just the characters but where the plot went that I disliked. I didn’t want to talk too much about where it eventually ended up.

      • Carolyn O December 10, 2013 / 12:30 pm


  2. Cecilia December 11, 2013 / 1:41 pm

    That’s too bad. It was a promising premise!

    • whatmeread December 11, 2013 / 1:42 pm

      It went wrong in a couple of different ways.

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