'Words were invented so lies could be told' Mary Ellen Pleasant
San Francisco in the 1890s is a town of contradictions, home to a respectable middle class, but with the Wild West lingering in the imagination, and even the behaviour, of some residents. Lizzie Hayes, a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster, is praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, or the Brown Ark. She doesn't know it, but she's waiting for the spark that will liberate her from convention.
When the wealthy and well-connected but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark with an orphan in tow, Lizzie is drawn to them both. It is the beautiful Mrs Pleasant, object of suspicion because of her mysterious past and rumoured voodoo practise, who holds the key to freeing Lizzie's rebellious nature.
Based on real historical figures, San Francisco in the gilded age is brought vibrantly to life in Karen Joy Fowler's entertaining, evocative and sinister novel.
Subtle undercurrents of race and class propel this intriguing novel laden with historic fact and fancy, mystery, voodoo, frontier rough-and-tumble and turn-of-the-century social conventions. The characters rooted in this rich, exotic loam are an unforgettable crop. In 1890s San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a 40-year-old spinster, the well-born volunteer treasurer of the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, familiarly called the Brown Ark because of its "shipwrecked, random air, like something the tides had left. In this respect, it matched the fortunes of most of its residents." One day, the notorious, fascinating and possibly dangerous Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant arrives at the door of the Brown Ark with a girl, Jenny Ijub, a disturbing and winsome child, perhaps four years old, rumored to be the daughter of a mother buried at sea and an unknown father, though Lizzie suspects he could be rich and thus a valuable resource for the Home. Every character's tale is complicated, unpredictable and often engrossing. Mrs. Pleasant, for instance, is a former slave (or is she?), wealthy as a railroad baron, charitable, a witch and a legendary cook. Still beautiful at 70, she is a purported dealer in underground markets where sex, opium and even murder are for sale. Fowler (Sarah Canary; The Sweetheart Season) moves her principals through time and space seamlessly and gracefully, and exquisitely renders San Francisco as it grows from outpost to city. The temporal shifts and the unreliability of some characters' histories may be temporarily disorienting, but readers who bear with Fowler will be handsomely rewarded.