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on 28 December 2004
Published before Joanne Harris became famous, this work is the darkest of hers yet.
I wonder if she lightened up her style to be more commercial, as this bears little resemblance to Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters... or Chocolat.
In brief, before going any further, I rate this the best book she has written.
In more detail, then:
Told from the point of view of multiple narrators, (a style Irvine Welsh has excelled in) two of them men (and very convincing they are, too. I found myself checking the title page to reassure myself this was a Joanne Harris novel, so thoroughly masculine were the male characters' voices) the plot, in its complexity and bleak darkness, while not in voice, language or period, could be measured against an Irvine Welsh story.
Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of a wealthy middle aged painter who marries a beautiful girl of seventen whom he has been grooming (shades of Moliere's Ecole de Femmes here) since she was eleven.
He has a murky, shameful past, however, and it is going to catch up with him, through the hands of a bohemian woman with mystical powers and a Byron-esque fellow painter with dishonourable designs on his ethereally beautiful wife.
The pace picks up at a constant rate throughout the book, so the reader is galloping along and defying anyone to interrupt as s/he approaches the denouement.
Love, obsession, sex, dark magic, hypocrisy, murder and death in general drive the plot along.
Buy it, borrow it,steal it!
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on 16 March 2002
This is a consuming Gothic novel by the author of Chocolat. What lies hidden in that later novel is brought to the fore here. Whilst Vianne Rocher has a love/hate relationship with the Tarot in Chocolat, the cards here form the divisions of the text, the stepping-stones we take to reach the conclusion. And it is possible to make a reading from these cards, unlike those of T. S. Elliot's Madame Sosostris.
Henry Paul Chester is a Victorian artist, the owner of a deadly secret, which goes to the very depth of his heart and art. Here we seem to be on traditional Gothic turf: that of James Hogg and his 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner', for Chester postulates that he may well have a secret double. Joanne Harris obeys the literary conventions of the early Gothic here by making Chester a Catholic - Matthew 'Monk' Lewis' Ambrosio removed from his Abbey and placed into the art world. He is just as repressed and far back in denial as Father Reynaud is in Chocolat. Then there's a touch of Sheridan Le Fanu too, with the distressed maiden taking liberal doses of laudanum. However, 'Sleep, Pale Sister' is not just homage to old fictions. Joanne Harris is an excellent storyteller, with a quite distinctive style. The tales of Le Fanu and Stoker may have had their powerful, exciting moments, but Harris outshines them all with her excellent technique.
Chester is obsessed with painting young, 'innocent' girls. Which leads him to spot the nine-year-old Effie in a park. For the price of a few shillings, Chester gets his perfect model. Effie becomes the star of a series of portraits of young, distressed children, such as 'The Little Beggar Girl'. After ten years, Chester marries his 'perfect' model, and this is precisely the moment when their relationship sours. She turns to one of Chester's rivals, the unscrupulous Moses Zachary Harper, for solace. But he is not about to lead her to the Promised Land. It is at a carnival that Effie finally heeds her calling, summoned by Fanny Miller, a brothel keeper who sees something of her dead daughter in Effie. With Effie under her spell, Fanny finally unlocks Henry Chester's dark secret. Together with Mose, she devises a deadly plan to expose and ruin Chester. But with the use of magic, there is always the danger of the unseen...
In Chocolat, there's a delicious scene in which Harris refers to 'Alice in Wonderland', and it seems as though she could be hinting to Charles Dodgsons' suspected paedophilia. But there is also the example of the Pre-Raphaelite John Ruskin, whose name is often mentioned in this novel, as Chester seeks the art critic's approbation. Ruskin too married an Effie, Euphemia Gray. Ruskin's marriage was annulled after six years due to it being unconsummated, leaving Effie free to marry another Pre-Raphaelite artist. It's possible that Joanne Harris got part of her story from this source, from Ruskin's repressed sexuality. One also has to take note of the fact that Kate Atkinson has taken the name of Euphemia as the heroine of her latest novel, 'Emotionally Weird'. Now that Harris and Atkinson are both published by Doubleday, it would seem prudent to investigate such links between these two writers. However, Atkinson's use of Effie may well be coincidental, since this name seems to be beloved of the Scots and 'Emotionally Weird' is very celebratory of all things Scottish. Besides, 'Euphemia' means 'to speak well', and since Effie is not the most articulate of narrators (in her narrative which knows it is prose), this is probably another sign of Atkinson's wordplay at work.
However, as mentioned before, Harris' 'Sleep, Pale Sister' can be linked to a number of other Victorian and Pre-Victorian Gothic fictions. Also running through the novel is the figure of Scheherazade, the heroine of 'A Thousand and One Nights', who, to prevent her execution by the king, her husband, cleverly told him so many fabulous tales that the time of her execution had to be constantly stayed, because he was so eager to hear their resolution. Of course, the Arabian Nights do have a happy conclusion, and it's intriguing to see Joanne Harris playing with the rules of convention here.
'Sleep, Pale Sister' is then a quite complex work, but combined with Harris' typically strong plot, any reader will be compelled to race to the end. It's a very rewarding novel, operating on many levels. Take, for instance, Harris' employment of 'My Sister's Sleep', the poem which forms the basis for one of Effie's portraits - it does have a great deal of relevance to the plot. One of Harris' main themes is that of Childhood, as excelled in her latest novel, 'Blackberry Wine'. It is entirely appropriate then, that she should attempt to tackle the Victorians, who are widely credited with having created 'childhood'. However, Harris is quite clear as to how some Victorians set out to pervert their creation. This is a narrative conceived from the same pen as that of Chocolat, and therefore deserves to be read by a much wider audience. At its heart lies the same battle between the supposed rational man and the 'hysterical' woman, as defined here by the fictional psychoanalyst Dr. Francis Russell. Like 'Chocolat', an equal balance of male and female antagonists narrates the novel. You'll not be disappointed by this rare and bloody fiction.
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on 1 July 2006
One of the author's earlier works and in my opinion the best I have read by her. Set in Victorian England it tells the tale of a painter who marries a beautiful 17 year old girl who is his favourite model. He has a dark shameful past and it all catches up with him to reach a fantastic conclusion. In this book we have death, love, obsession, sex, murder and magic. A tremendous read and one I fully recommend.
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on 20 March 2005
Let me start by saying that Joanne Harris is one of my favorite writers - this book is a re-print of a novel that had first been published before she became well-known.

It features her usual blend of colorful characters (including the occasional spirit!) bound together by deep, and often dark, passion and magic.

Unusually, in this book she seems to have little sympathy for her characters - though I must admit that most of them really aren't all that likeable, the fact that even their creator can't sympathize with them or try to make some sort of excuse for them, makes them that much sadder.

I enjoyed reading it, but it's nowhere near one of her best works - I personally think she's at her best when writing about food, Chocolat being one of my all-time favorite books.
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on 17 June 2010
When I started Sleep Pale Sister it took me a while to get into it - it felt like it might be one of those books that trys to be arty for art's sake...

2 chapters in and I was hooked and completely wrong - it's just that Henry's character in the book is so bizarre that in reading the first chapter (written in his voice)it can be a little worrying that the whole novel is going to continue in this narrative style.

I loved the characters - Joanne Harris is extremely talented in making 4 completely different narrative voices so real - every chapter is written from a different character and you very quickly get used to the 4 minds - there is no confusion and having to revisit previous pages to work out whos turn it is - you just feel their individual energy straight away and I love that style of writing!

I was reminded of Sarah Walters in this book - Affinity is my absolute favourite read - and the black magic and mystery draws you in so completely that you cannot put the book down (and when you do it is still very much with you in everything you do. The reason for only 4 stars in stead of 5 is purely down to the ending. If you have read Infinity you will know how cleverly the magic and mystery is explained at the end of the book, where this one still leaves you wondering and a little disappointed at the lack of a clean finish.

This is only my opinion - I love mystery for the reason that I enjoy seeing how the author returns to normality and order at the close of the story - so for me this left too many questions unanswered but many other readers would probably prefer to stay in that sense of unknowing and completely give themselves over to the escapism of reading.

I would definitely recommend this book.
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on 20 June 2007
I understand that this book disappeared without trace when it was first released. Goodness only knows why. Lacklustre promotion, I can only imagine because it's a wonderful book. Echoes of Dorian Gray but without the covert mysogyny. Darkly magical. Literate and hugely enjoyable.

Unlike a previous reviewer, I loved the device of having the four narrators and had no problem descerning which was which. Indeed, it simply increased my admiration for the author's skill and dexterity.

I loved Chocolat but I couldn't get on with Five Quarter's of the Orange at all. What does it matter? Sleep, Pale Sister is a stand-alone success.
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on 15 September 2012
I enjoyed this strange story from Joanne Harris. I am still not sure about the end but unlike some novels I did not skip to the end to find out what happened. Something quite haunting about the whole tale.
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on 28 March 2000
This is a consuming Gothic novel by the author of Chocolat. What lies hidden in that later novel is brought to the fore here. Whilst Vianne Rocher has a love/hate relationship with the Tarot in Chocolat, the cards here form the divisions of the text, the stepping-stones we take to reach the conclusion. And it is possible to make a reading from these cards, unlike those of T. S. Elliot's Madame Sosostris.
Henry Paul Chester is a Victorian artist, the owner of a deadly secret, which goes to the very depth of his heart and art. Here we seem to be on traditional Gothic turf: that of James Hogg and his 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner', for Chester postulates that he may well have a secret double. Joanne Harris obeys the literary conventions of the early Gothic here by making Chester a Catholic - Matthew 'Monk' Lewis' Ambrosio removed from his Abbey and placed into the art world. He is just as repressed and far back in denial as Father Reynaud is in Chocolat. Then there's a touch of Sheridan Le Fanu too, with the distressed maiden taking liberal doses of laudanum. However, 'Sleep, Pale Sister' is not just a homage to old fictions. Joanne Harris is an excellent storyteller, with a quite distinctive style. The tales of Le Fanu and Stoker may have had their powerful, exciting moments, but Harris outshines them all with her excellent technique.
Chester is obsessed with painting young, 'innocent' girls. Which leads him to spot the nine-year-old Effie in a park. For the price of a few shillings, Chester gets his perfect model. Effie becomes the star of a series of portraits of young, distressed children, such as 'The Little Beggar Girl'. After ten years, Chester marries his 'perfect' model, and this is precisely the moment when their relationship sours. She turns to one of Chester's rivals, the unscrupulous Moses Zachary Harper, for solace. But he is not about to lead her to the Promised Land. It is at a carnival that Effie finally heeds her calling, summoned by Fanny Miller, a brothel keeper who sees something of her dead daughter in Effie. With Effie under her spell, Fanny finally unlocks Henry Chester's dark secret. Together with Mose, she devises a deadly plan to expose and ruin Chester. But with the use of magic, there is always the danger of the unseen...
In Chocolat, there's a delicious scene in which Harris refers to 'Alice in Wonderland', and it seems as though she could be hinting to Charles Dodgsons' suspected paedophilia. But there is also the example of the Pre-Raphaelite John Ruskin, whose name is often mentioned in this novel, as Chester seeks the art critic's approbation. Ruskin too married an Effie, Euphemia Gray. Ruskin's marriage was annulled after six years due to it being unconsummated, leaving Effie free to marry another Pre-Raphaelite artist. It's possible that Joanne Harris got part of her story from this source, from Ruskin's repressed sexuality. One also has to take note of the fact that Kate Atkinson has taken the name of Euphemia as the heroine of her latest novel, 'Emotionally Weird'. Now that Harris and Atkinson are both published by Doubleday, it would seem prudent to investigate such links between these two writers. However, Atkinson's use of Effie may well be coincidental, since this name seems to be beloved of the Scots and 'Emotionally Weird' is very celebratory of all things Scottish. Besides, 'Euphemia' means 'to speak well', and since Effie is not the most articulate of narrators (in her narrative which knows it is prose), this is probably another sign of Atkinson's wordplay at work.
However, as mentioned before, Harris' 'Sleep, Pale Sister' can be linked to a number of other Victorian and Pre-Victorian Gothic fictions. Also running through the novel is the figure of Scheherazade, the heroine of 'A Thousand and One Nights', who, to prevent her execution by the king, her husband, cleverly told him so many fabulous tales that the time of her execution had to be constantly stayed, because he was so eager to hear their resolution. Of course, the Arabian Nights do have a happy conclusion, and it's intriguing to see Joanne Harris playing with the rules of convention here.
'Sleep, Pale Sister' is then a quite complex work, but combined with Harris' typically strong plot, any reader will be compelled to race to the end. It's a very rewarding novel, operating on many levels. Take, for instance, Harris' employment of 'My Sister's Sleep', the poem which forms the basis for one of Effie's portraits - it does have a great deal of relevance to the plot. One of Harris' main themes is that of Childhood, as excelled in her latest novel, 'Blackberry Wine'. It is entirely appropriate then, that she should attempt to tackle the Victorians, who are widely credited with having created 'childhood'. However, Harris is quite clear as to how some Victorians set out to pervert their creation. This is a narrative conceived from the same pen as that of Chocolat, and therefore deserves to be read by a much wider audience. At its heart lies the same battle between the supposed rational man and the 'hysterical' woman, as defined here by the fictional psychoanalyst Dr. Francis Russell. Like 'Chocolat', the novel is narrated by an equal balance of male and female antagonists. You'll not be disappointed by this rare and bloody fiction.
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on 18 April 2015
This book grew on me the more I read it. It's an ambitious novel with a clever idea at its heart. When Joanne Harris uses multiple first person narrators, the paperback copies usually have a symbol at the start of each chapter that indicates who is talking. I read this book on the Kindle and there were no visual clues at the start of each chapter to tell you who the narrator was. It was usually pretty obvious after a sentence or two, but still I think the publisher should treat ebooks in the same way as they treat paperbacks.
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on 12 September 2007
I am a great fan of Joanne Harris, and like many other readers I was keen to find out what this early work was like. As others have pointed out, Sleep, Pale Sister has many recognisable features which Harris develops in other books, but for me the interest ended there - at mere curiosity. I had to force myself to finish it, hoping with every page that it would reveal one of those famous twists of plot, but no.
I'm afraid this was the most boring book I have read for many years. I found the endless laudanum-induced dreams and sinister story-telling episodes tedious and repetitive.
If you are hoping for more along the lines of her other books - don't bother with this one.
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