Books about the cloister or about Roman Catholicism can go a couple of different ways. Sometimes you get the rather devotional, romantic view that ignores the problems within the church, but more often these days, you get books obsessed with everything that’s wrong with church and all the potential dysfunctions in the cloistered life. It seems like contemporary fiction has little room for balance when it comes to Catholicism or the cloister.
However, I live in hope that just such a story can still be written, so with my heart in my throat, I put my name in for a copy of The Convent by Panos Karnezis in the LibraryThing Early Review program, published in the UK in January 2010, but releasing the US this November. I almost didn’t do it because I just knew this would be a mean-spirited look at everything that’s wrong with the church—and with organized religion in general. (I don’t mind critique of the church or religion, but the cheap shots that ignore the appeal and the potential benefits of the religious life frustrate me.) In the end, this book turned out to be a delightful surprise. It is, at times, a dark and upsetting story—it’s not in any sense a whitewash. But it also reveals the beauty and comfort of the cloister, and most important, it shows that the people who live within a convent’s walls are as varied and complex as the people on the outside.
The novel is set sometime after World War I at an isolated convent in Spain. The once bustling site is home to only six nuns—or at least it was until the day Sister Lucia finds a suitcase with a baby inside at the convent door. Mother Superior Maria Ines, who is still grappling with her own heartbreak and sin, accepts the presence of the child as a sign of God’s grace, and she becomes obsessed with the child’s care. Other sisters are more skeptical, particularly the ambitious Sister Ana; she comes to believe that the child is sent from the devil himself. Most, however, love the child, even as they worry about Mother Superior’s overprotective attitude and her unwillingness to tell the bishop about the child.
This is exactly the kind of story that could easily devolve into sentiment—you know the story, the presence of a baby warms a bunch of cold hearts and makes them love for the first time (Six Nuns and a Baby, perhaps?) But Karnezis doesn’t go there. The presence of the child actually draws some of the tensions underlying the convent’s life to the surface. The Mother Superior has long harbored a secret that the presence of the child brings out. Her increasingly disturbing and unstable behavior becomes a vehicle for Sister Ana’s ambition, and the events cause the bishop to reconsider his relationship with the convent. The baby doesn’t resolve tensions; its presence ramps up the tension. (Not being a parent myself, I’ve got to think that this happens with marriages as well. A baby doesn’t fix problems; it raises the stakes!) Mother Superior Maria Ines’s reaction to the baby shows how even seemingly good impulses can be taken to disturbing levels, given the right circumstances. And this book takes some extraordinarily dark turns. There are some devastatingly unpleasant moments as the tensions within the community, and especially within Maria Ines’s own mind, mount. Karnezis has such an eye for detail that these moments are especially haunting.
There are some times when the characters’ interpretations of events are almost laughably ridiculous. Sister Ana in particular makes some discoveries that lead to an obvious conclusion, but she doesn’t go there. Instead, she builds an elaborate story to support what she wants to believe. Her suspicions actually make a fair bit of sense, if you put yourself into her world, but modern readers who are inclined to look for rational explanations first might find both Sister Ana and the Mother Superior’s explanations extremely hard to swallow. I suspect that the success of the book with readers will vary a great deal, depending on whether readers can accept (though not necessarily believe) the characters’ tendency to choose supernatural explanations when natural ones are staring them in the face. I found it fascinating—and revealing of how we do tend to interpret events on the basis of what we want to believe, rather than on what actually is.
Although I could have done with more development of the supporting characters, I liked what Karnezis did with them, given the short length of the book. Most of the sisters are depicted as kind, loving women, but they are not perfect saints, with eyes directed only toward God. Each one has her own little obsessions. Sister Teresa has her pop music records, Sister Carlotta has her stray dogs. Harmless obsessions, obviously, but they give the characters texture. At only 214 pages, the book didn’t offer much room for more than a little texture.
Overall, this book was a wonderful surprise. It’s dark and unsettling, which you know I love, but I especially love that Karnezis embeds the darkness in the characters’ own psyches, not in the church. People who are overly ambitious, crippled by guilt, or mentally unbalanced bring those qualities with them to the cloister. The closed environment, steeped in spirituality, might affect how these qualities manifest themselves, but is the characters, and not the cloister itself, that are the source of trouble. This is, at heart, a book about people, not a diatribe for or against faith. It is that which makes it a success.
Other Blog Reviews: dovegreyreader scribbles says, “it is the spotlight on human frailties, that means of scraping away the layers of artifice and reducing his characters down to their very being that Panos Karnezis achieves so adroitly, somehow he finds their soul.”