When I asked people to recommend books about life in religious communities, this (as well as Godden’s In This House of Brede) was one of the most frequent responses. It’s a story set among the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, whose charism involves prison ministry–and so many of the sisters are themselves former criminals, what we’d call “ex-offenders” or “returning citizens.” These are I think the same nuns you see in Robert Bresson’s terrific nun-noir The Angels of Sin. (This is the Bresson for people who don’t like Bresson, btw.)
The story is full of sordid occurrences and low motives: masochistic love, selfish refusal to care about other women’s pain, etc. The main character, Lise, is not only complicit but an active participant in recruiting women (including young teens) for a brothel. We spend most of our time in her head but also glimpse the sad backstories of some of the other women in the prison or the convent. They give us fairly graphic portrayals of child abuse, including rape and infanticide. The voices of the novel also flow freely from third- to first-person, and from present to past to earlier past, following intuition rather than logic.
And yet there’s something childlike about this book. It almost seems more appropriate for children than for adults. I was reminded of, maybe, “The Little Match Girl.” (Although even that story is darker than this book.) There’s something protective about Lise’s faith, something sturdy and unwavering, almost to the point of kitsch. It’s a story of hope and conversion, but there’s something too insistent here, too didactic. The priests are all good, the nuns are all sincere, the rosary and the Eucharist are always there for you; the Church is purely a haven. The upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s are hinted at but quickly resolved. I feel like actual Catholics often find the Church a much harder place to live. I get the impression that Godden intended to portray the convent as a storm shelter with its own storms inside it, but the right thing to do is always a little too evident, and the comfort always comes a little too quickly.I’ll also say that this book makes the imprisoned characters say, several times, that they deserve it. I think there are ways to write that so that I’d find it humble but here it just seemed so truckling, so complicit: Of course we need to be humiliatingly searched. Of course we must be placed in solitary confinement for the first months of our sentence. It is all for our own good really…. Any expression of anger at injustice is interpreted as lack of remorse. In general this book is very sunny about official or worldly authority. The prisons are all run by reformers, and it doesn’t turn out like this story, for example. The worst thing about the guards is that one of them was a naive pushover who was too nice to a prisoner. If I had a kid who was reading this book this is the aspect I’d want to talk over with her.
All of that said–the portrayals of repentance and piety are genuinely moving. And I really liked the matter-of-fact way Lise deals with her past. She doesn’t wallow in self-hatred. She repents, which is a different and more forthright, forward-moving thing.
Honestly I wonder if this book could work for teens who like contemporary YA. I don’t mean that as an insult. There’s just a lot of fairy-tale in this story, despite the specifics of postwar brothels and Vatican II.