Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Friday, 18 March 2011

Gothic Scheherazade from Joanne Harris

Sleep, Pale Sister

Drugs, sex and --  only the rock 'n' roll is missing from Joanne Harris's novel, Sleep, Pale Sister (Black Swan). And it isn't the first time that great literature has been influenced by The Arabian Nights, for wasn't it Mary Shelley who used some of its elements for her own Gothic Frankenstein horror story?

Sleep, Pale Sister was one of the two novels written before the author hit the jackpot with Chocolat and since its debut in 1994, it's been revised and republished by demand. I think it's a great story in the Harris tradition, pacey, full of action, twists and dark surprises; it's about love and hate, revenge and treachery. Apart from the parallels to Scherherazade's escape from male domination with her storytelling techniques, I was minded of Wilkie Collins, Wilde, the Brontes, the pre-Raphaelites and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in turn. That's a lot to be reminded of. It's a dark novel with a tragic ending, splashed with visions of a netherworld and the murky side of life in the back streets of London, brothels and graveyards.

Dark Plot

Henry Paul Chester is a painter who has twice exhibited his work at the Royal Academy. But he's an odd bod with emotional scars from a childhood influenced by his minister father, whose home is steeped in religious paraphernalia and maternal neglect from his beautiful mother whom he rarely sees. On trying to gain her love, he succeeds only in gathering massive guilt, which mars his ability to show his true emotions. Svengali also comes to mind when he marries his main model, the 'stunner' who sits to him for his allegorical portraits reflecting young women.

Effie Shelbeck is only 10 when she first sits to Henry and, at 17 she becomes the 40-year-old artist's wife. (Interesting that John Ruskin married a teenage bride called Effie Gray.)  Henry keeps her in check with regular doses of laudanum, which she promptly pours into the plants, a quite natural reaction for a spirited young woman you might say. Quietly, she makes a life of her own in another world, in the rather dubious company of Mose Harper, poet and philanderer and his friend brothel keeper Fanny Miller, whose little daughter Marta was murdered by 'a client'. Effie is a bit of a witch -- Harris seems to specialise in these -- and has out-of-body experiences where she identifies the murderer and takes over Marta's identity. Need I say more?


Both Henry and Mose are fundamentally flawed, there is no Mr D'Arcy for poor Effie and she must suffer her fate a la Juliet. The novel is full of Gothic Victorian allusions, so much so that I felt that I'd already read the section on Henry's disillusionment with married life somewhere before but couldn't put my finger on it. He seemed a familiar character somehow. Perhaps he is typical of Victorian men. He requires perfection and wants to put Effie on a pedastal to adore from a distance. She is his muse, he has moulded her but Effie is human and has needs of her own. Mose, on the other hand, is a cad and womaniser who wants Effie solely for lust, to destroy her and he has no morals. Effie is neither of the women they want her to be and both men are using one another -- Henry is after Mose's connections in the art world and Mose wants access to his wife. Fanny wants her daughter back and poor Effie just wants To Be.

'God made women weak and perverse and full of treachery', says Henry. And what about men? What are they full of?

If you enjoy Joanne's books, why not log onto her website at http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/


LindyLouMac in Italy said...

Not one of my favourites from an author whose writing I normally enjoy tremendously, but as you mention it was originally published much earlier 1993 in fact!

Diane Paul said...

Sorry to hear that, Lindy. I thought it was great fun. There seem to be some differences about when it was first published, some say 1993, others 1994, I think probably the former according to Joanne's website but it's been re-published several times.