Sister Noon, by Karen Joy Fowler
8/10: a twisted, semi-magical tale of self-discovery in turn of the century San Francisco
In our fabulist fiction class, we read a story by Karen Joy Fowler titled, “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man,” which was not very fabulist but was extremely funny and very well written. On the strength of that story, I picked up “Sister Noon,” one of the quartet of Karen Joy Fowler books available online.
I was a little disappointed in that “Sister Noon” lacks the pervasive humor of “Invisible Man.” It is, however, a fascinating exploration of the landscape of San Francisco, of the link between race and identity, and of the role of women in the 19th century. Her dark humor still comes through in many passages, fortunately, and the characters are so well drawn that once I got into the story, I didn’t miss the humor–much.
“Sister Noon” is the story, mostly, of Lizzie Hayes, an aging spinster who manages the finances for an orphanage. Mammie Pleasant, a servant who is black but used to be white, drops off an orphaned girl whose race is just as malleable as her own, and in whose case Lizzie takes a special interest. Lizzie herself is drifting through life, so the arrival of Jenny and the resulting turmoil is not entirely unwelcome. As a result of Jenny’s stay at the orphanage, Lizzie finds herself encountering voodoo magic, migraine headaches, the ghost of her mother, and Mammie Pleasant’s history, which reveals the astonishing power a woman–a black woman, at that–can have over the highest echelons of society.
In the process, we discover with Lizzie a meticulously rendered San Francisco, from the houses and carriages to the shine of a gentleman’s coat and the blooms of certain flowers. It occurs to me that, at least in this effort, “Sister Noon” reads as though it were written by a female Tim Powers, and you know what I think of his work. The magical elements in her world lack the coherence and breadth of his, but the feel is very similar, that these elements are a part of our world, available to anyone who knows how to contact them.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and liked the resolution, but the narrative was rather episodic and a little scattered. It took a good deal of thought to assemble the description of the plot for this review, and even so I dare say you’re still not sure what the book is about. The best I can do is to say that it’s about Lizzie’s search for her own identity through her interest in Jenny, but the primary pleasure of the story is learning about the history of San Francisco and the backstory that Fowler weaves effortlessly into it. And of course, there are numerous passages like the one I excerpted that just make you laugh.