Books Magazine

Book Review: Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris

By Pamelascott





PAGES: 394


YEAR: 2004

Sleep, Pale Sister is a library book. Harris is on my list must read authors.


Henry Chester, a domineering and puritanical Victorian Artist, is in search of the perfect model. In nine year old Effie he finds her.

Ten years later, lovely, childlike and sedated, Effie seems the ideal wife. But something inside her is about to awaken. Drawn by her lover, Mose, into a dangerous underworld of intrigue and blackmail, she meets Fanny Miller, the brothel-keeper, and her shadowy daughter, Marta – murdered ten years ago on the day of Henry’s weekly visit.

And as a friendship becomes possession and Henry’s secret past is revealed, Effie and Marta plan their revenge together.

Sleep, Pale Sister is a powerful, atmospheric and blackly gothic evocation of Victorian artistic life…


As I look at my name and the letters which follow it I am filled with a vast blankness. As if this Henry Chester, painter, twice exhibited at the Royal Academy, were not myself but some ill-defined figment of somebody’s imagination, the cork to a bottle containing a genie of delicate malevolence that permeates my being and launches me into a real of perilous adventure, in search of the pale, terrified ghost of myself.


I thought Sleep, Pale Sister was great. It reminded me of Harris’s debut novel, The Evil Seed but it was a better read. Harris offers everything you could hope for in a Victorian gothic delight including debauchery, murder, mystery and ghosts (of a sort). I thought Sleep, Pale Sister was delightful. Creepy title.

STRUCTURE: Harris uses multiple first person narrators in Sleep, Pale Sister. These include Harold, his wife Effie, Henry’s old nemesis and Effie’s lover Mose and Fanny, who runs the local brother and knows Henry and Mose’s dirty secrets. This works for the most part and I didn’t mind going in and out of each character’s head. Each character has their own voice and it’s not as if Harris switches perspective in the middle of chapters. However, Harris doesn’t pinpoint who the characters are (i.e. by including the name as the title of the chapter) and I got confused a few times until I got attuned to the different voices. I felt this could have worked better if Harris had used the character names as chapter headings instead of numbering the chapters.

PLACE: Sleep, Pale Sister is set in Victorian London. Harris does a great job of bringing the city and time to vivid, memorable life. I felt like I walked the streets with Henry and Effie and everyone else. I could feel the hard, cold ground beneath my feet. I could smell the damp air and the food and the disease. I was in the brother when Effie and Fanny plotted Henry’s downfall. Harris creates a rich, evocative world. I’ve read a few novels set in Victorian London and do enjoy reading about this era in the city.

CHARACTERISATION: The characters were all very well drawn in Sleep, Pale Sister. Effie was my favorite. I thought she was fascinating. Harris shows her as pale, frail and vulnerable at first. A sort of eternal virgin. She develops a lot more depth and becomes darker and more sinister as the novel progress. She becomes quite complex. I also really liked Fanny. My heart went out to her. Henry murdered and possibly raped her young daughter ten years ago. I understand her determination to get revenge using Effie as the bait. In some way, neither Henry nor Mose have any redeeming features. They are both sexual predators and paedophiles who prey on underage women. Henry is a murderer. They are stereotypical villains. However, Harris does a great job of putting flesh on their sinister bones that I thought they were very well written.

PLOT: Sleep, Pale Sister is very like typical Victorian gothic novels and shares a lot of features of this type of fiction. Harris writes so well this never becomes an issue. I loved the pace of the novel. I love the chapters where Effie appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Fanny’s murdered daughter. A lot of Sleep, Pale Sister’s charm lies in the fact its classical genre fiction. Sleep, Pale Sister contains some classic themes from gothic literature including debauchery, murder, ghosts and insanity. Sleep, Pale Sister reminded me of two novels I love; The Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates and Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox. Oates novel contains all the gothic trappings as Harris’s novel. In Fox’s novel, a Victorian artist marries the beautiful, virginal model he’s obsessed with and is a bit of an ogre, going as far as having her locked up in an asylum. There are some many scenes in events in Sleep, Pale Sister I had a great time reading.




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