Sleep, Pale Sister is a reissue of Joanne Harris's (Chocolat) second published book. It's quite a departure from her more recent works. Sleep, Pale Sister is written in a style reminiscent to that of the gothic novel and is narrated by several different characters, each confessing to an audience, the reader, their version of what really happened to two of the main characters. Effie is introduced as a young girl who gains the attention of artist Henry Chester, who for some reason is attracted to little girls such as she and spends his time painting them, aspiring to becoming a well-known and respected artist. Effie grows up under the eyes and guidance of Henry, with the approval of her mother, and he eventually marries her when she is seventeen and he is in his forties.
The most important character in this book is probably Henry Chester, a very troubled man who will at first gain the reader’s respect; but as the novel progresses, troubling details about Henry’s personal views and desires will be revealed, demonstrating the type of person Henry really is. His obsession over the young Effie is definitely that: an obsession. And while he professes to truly love her, his love is a selfish one in which he imprisons her mentally and physically so that she eventually becomes ill. Her life becomes such that she cannot make a move without his approval.
Henry’s viewpoint of this story is one of an innocent loving man, and that he has been tempted by Effie’s ways as if she were a sorceress. He views sex as a sin and a form of disgusting pleasure; thus he finds ways to avoid being with her as “husband and wife.” He has always been attracted to her purity and virginity, and as she grows up he tries to shape her into the type of woman he thinks God intended her to be. In his world, women as a whole are born with sin and grow up to tempt men to do things that are impure. Effie, in his eyes, was the exception, at least in the beginning.
When Effie narrates the story from her viewpoint, she tells her tale of woe, being married to a very controlling man such as Mr. Chester (she is not allowed to call him by his first name). She grows up learning from her parents that sex is nothing to be ashamed of, that it is a healthy manifestation of love between a husband and a wife. She is bewildered after she learns that Mr. Chester wants nothing to do with her physically and tries to keep her chaste and pure. When they do engage in sex, he feels that she’s tempted him, and he blames her for her wicked ways.
Effie is typical of the women of her day (the late 1800s), weak and often taken to sick - or at least that is what it often seems like to the casual observer, and especially to Henry. But it is Henry who makes sure she is constantly given her laudanum, so she is nearly always in a state of what appears to be fatigue. Effie is now in a loveless marriage, and after a miscarriage, she slowly wastes away.
Enter Moses Harper, who becomes a protege of Henry's and also falls for the beautiful Effie. He, too, has his story to tell, as does Fanny Miller, a woman of ill repute with a huge secret that ties into Henry's sick past. Between these four narrators, the story comes into being and the reader will be immersed in this very sensational gothic novel of deception, betrayal and greed.
For the lucky reader who comes across this novel, it without a doubt will be enjoyed, especially if one is partial towards gothic or Victorian settings. The only real problem with the novel is that it is a bit too long and could have been cut shorter. At the same time, one may not want this book to end, as the story is very engaging, and one will want to know what happens to the characters after this book ends. Even with her earlier books, Harris has always been a wonderful storyteller, and this reviewer is disappointed that she has not written any more gothic novels such as this. The story as a whole is intriguing enough to want to finish the book with an ending that one may not totally feel satisfied with. At the same time, it can be said that justice is served. Sleep, Pale Sister is recommended for readers of Joanne Harris’s novels as well as fans of the old gothic/Victorian-era stories.