We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was one of the breakout hits of last year, so it is no surprise to see Karen Joy Fowler’s back catalogue get a few revisits to cash in on her success. Sister Noon has its roots in Fowler’s love of San Francisco, “I took myself to the university library in Davis, found the right shelves, and started looking for my story,” Fowler explains in the end pages of the novel. The more she looked, the more she found the same name cropping up again and again: Mary Ellen Pleasant. A figure of legend in San Francisco, Pleasant’s story is full of untruths and myths; a woman of contradiction. So it’s only fitting that Fowler constructs this, her 2001 novel, around the many myths surrounding Pleasant.
Sister Noon tells the story of Lizzie Hayes, who volunteers for the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home, and winds up taking in a young orphan girl from Mary Ellen Pleasant, who arrives one day. Hayes is drawn to the both of them because of the mystery of their origins, and the friendships she develops with them both begins to unlock an unknown rebellious streak in her.
It’s easy to see why, of all of Fowler’s body of work, Sister Noon has been chosen to be reprinted. It shares a number of things in common with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, not least the friendships between women, and familial bonds. As with her 2014 smash hit, Fowler also constructs some excellent characters, and some wonderful set pieces – in particular a seance sequence which is just ambiguous enough to remain haunting long after you finish the book.
However, there are issues here. Sister Noon is, at best, a decent if unambitious exploration of a period in San Francisco’s history; at worst, it’s a long trudge through meticulously researched facts about the time. There are reams of text detailing a variety of events which have no bearing on the story, and appear to exist solely to show off the amount of reading Fowler must have done in order to write the book. This doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable read for the most part, but it does mean that upon finishing the book, the reader is likely to feel just as Fowler did at the start of her research – looking for her story.
Any Cop: It’s certainly no disaster, but fans of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are likely to enter into this with higher expectations that it will deliver.