Culture Street

Books

Sisters of Mercy by Caroline Overington

On November 5, 2012

By Sophia Whitfield

Caroline Overington is an Australian journalist and author. She has recently been appointed associate editor for The Australian Women’s Weekly. Sisters of Mercy is her fourth novel.

Snow Delaney is the unlikable protagonist in Sisters of Mercy. Assured of her own innocence, she begins writing letters to Jack Fawcett, a journalist with The Sunday Times in Sydney. Her desire is to set Jack straight, to tell him the facts and prove her innocence. Snow Delaney is in Silverwater  prison, her lawyer has shown her a number of articles written by Jack Fawcett, and Snow is determined to prove to Jack that he has got ‘key facts’ wrong.

“My name is Snow Delaney. That’s right, I’m the real Snow Delaney – the one who is not like the person you write about in your newspaper.”

Jack Fawcett is intrigued and the two become pen friends.

Fawcett becomes involved in Snow Delaney’s case after he is asked by his editor to look into the disappearance of her sister, Agnes Moore. Born in London, Agnes was shipped off to Australia with 120 other orphaned babies. As an adult she moved back to the UK with her husband, John Moore, after meeting him on a property in Perth.

Years later Agnes discovered her parents had not died, as she was told, but had also moved to Australia and had another daughter, Snow. Excited by this new turn of events Agnes arrives in Sydney to visit Snow, the sister she has never met. When she fails to return home to England, her daughter Ruby raises the alarm and arrives in Sydney to try and discover the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance.

As Jack investigates further, he unearths a terrible story of abuse and neglect. Snow’s story unfolds through her letters.

After training as a nurse, Snow decides to specialise in disability care.

“We’re looking at people who can help us find out which of the patients at Calool might be able to live in the outside world.”

With wide eyed enthusiasm Snow answers the ad and begins her work of ‘rehabilitation’. It was her job to discover the patients that were ‘normal on the inside’.

Overington tracks a time when children and adults were left by families to be cared for in institutions under the umbrella term of ‘retardation’. Children and adults with physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and psychosis were all cared for together. This changed once ‘normalisation aides’ were employed. Children went into the community and those with an intellectual disability were no longer referred to as ‘retarded’, but instead as children with ‘intellectual challenges’

After Snow meets her partner, Mark Delaney, his mother was cared for at Calool, things begin to go wrong. Snow leaves Calool to work at Emu Cottage in Manly, a home for children with disabilities.

In line with the new ethos of the government to ‘normalise’ those with a disability, institutions were shut down and children and adults moved into the community. Emu Cottage lost its funding and Snow her job.

Snow, now an experienced nurse, decides to turn her home in Bondi into a respite facility. She discovers that she receives more money for the children with severe disabilities and the more children she cares for the more her income grows.

As Jack Fawcett delves deeper into the case, the consequences of Snow’s actions become a harrowing reality. An investigation into a missing person leads to a horrifying story being unearthed.

Overington has written a book that examines social issues and the consequences of a broken system. She examines the shift from institutional care to community care and the fallout that ensues during this process.

It is a fascinating book, one that is enhanced by Overington’s years of experience as a journalist. There are some that will find this book harrowing, there were certainly moments of it for me, but it will make the reader question appropriate care for those with a disability. Any book that does this is well worth being read.

Note

I was delighted to be able to interview Caroline Overington about her latest book and the role the community can play in the care of those with a disability. The video interview will go up on Wednesday.

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