Thursday, February 2, 2012
Obedience by Jaqueline Yallop
In a convent in rural France, three aging nuns remain. Cloistered within her failing faith and her failing body Sister Bernard navigates each day by the simple markers of domesticity; but when the convent is threatened with closure the soft threads of piety and daily existence unravel. What lies beneath are Sister Bernard's terrible memories of wartime disgrace; of a German soldier's bet turning lust into a love that defied the heavens, of the horrors of war and motherhood, and a God who began to sulk.
The story begins in the present as Sister Bernard waits with her companions, one deaf, one senile and incontinent, the last members of a once thriving spiritual community spending their final days together before being moving to their retirement homes. In an atmosphere of bickering and decades-old resentments they make their final preparations and waiting gives them the time to reflect on the past.
For 93-year-old Sister Bernard the loss of her domestic routine and spiritual rituals leaves her nothing to hold on to and the terrible memories of her wartime disgrace begin to surface. The story emerges erratically as one would expect from an aging memory but it soon becomes obvious that simple-minded Sister Bernard has spent her life longing to be loved. Very little is told about her life before the convent but she hears the voice of God in her head continuously. A harsh and critical God who chastises her for scuffed shoes and not cleaning her teeth , a voice of parental authority that moved to the convent with her, perhaps. Her spiritual sisters do not seem to have treated her with love and kindness either.
So it isn't surprising that when she finds herself the target of a cruel wager between the German soldiers occupying the nearby village she falls completely and passionately in love, an act that has dreadful consequences for herself, the convent and the villagers.
Written in simple but powerful and compelling prose the novel explores the space between love and betrayal, guilt and innocence and the very human need to be loved. It's one of those books I don't want to say 'I enjoyed it' because the themes are heartbreaking but it raises some thought provoking moral issues and it did make a strong emotional impact. I've seen few mentions of Obedience around the blogging world so I hope it's not going to slip under the radar as I thought it had a unique style and was very fine reading.
Publisher: Penguin, 2012