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The palace at Mopu was once known as the House of Women, home to the harem of the General, the local overlord of this remote spot high in the Himalayas. That General is now dead, and his son wants to do something to improve the lives of his people. So he has invited the Sisters of Mary to set up a convent there, to provide a school and clinic. Sister Superior Clodagh and her small group of fellow nuns make the long journey, full of enthusiasm to set up the new Convent of St Faith. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, set amidst the mountains, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.
Rumer Godden writes in a straightforward style, with little in the way of dramatic or poetical flourishes. But this simplicity is deceptive – she draws her characters with a surprisingly few strokes of her pen, and brings a haunting quality to her descriptions of place that allows her readers to understand the profound effect of it on the nuns. Sister Clodagh is young and inexperienced, but sure of her ability to lead – a confidence that isn’t completely shared by the Mother Superior back at the mother convent. Sister Blanche, known to all as Sister Honey, is sweet and kind, wanting to do her best for the children who attend the school and clinic. Sister Philippa and Sister Briony are the more experienced nuns, sensible and hard-working, Philippa in the gardens, and Briony heading up the clinic. And then there’s Sister Ruth, a troubled woman, full of jealousies and suppressed emotions; the kind of person no-one really wants around.
As they begin to settle into life at the convent, each of the nuns finds the isolation working on them in different ways. Sister Clodagh looks back to the events that brought her to a religious life, and for the first time finds herself questioning both her calling and her abilities. Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with the garden, creating grandiose plans that the convent could never afford. Sister Honey finds herself becoming emotionally attached to the children to a degree beyond what is either wise or safe. And Sister Ruth struggles with the altitude, constantly complaining of headaches and stomach aches, and feeling that the other nuns don’t value her, especially Sister Clodagh. As time goes by, the Sisters begin to drift, almost dreamlike, away from the routines and religious observances that were once second nature to them, finding that the dramatic beauty and emptiness of the mountains somehow diminishes the things they once held precious.
Into this mix come the catalysts: the General’s heir, a rather beautiful young man, clad in silks and jewels, seeking an education; and Mr Dean, a man with a less than savoury reputation regarding women, but with a blatant masculinity that half-frightens, half-attracts the nuns. Mr Dean is the new General’s man, on whom the nuns must rely to get practical things done around the convent. He is not conventionally religious, constantly challenging Sister Clodagh’s rather glib attempts to create a replica of the mother convent here in a place with a very different culture and spirituality, and pointing out any time he feels she falls short of what she professes to believe. But it is Sister Ruth who reacts most strongly to Mr Dean, years of suppression breaking out into ever wilder longing and jealousy.
The wonderful characterisation and atmospheric descriptions of this starkly unforgiving landscape provide a backdrop to the nuns’ struggle to stay on their religious path in this place they find so hauntingly mystical. For each, the experience will change her forever in ways she never imagined – some will find spiritual growth and a truer kind of faith, some will reach a reconciliation with events in their past, others will find their strength isn’t enough to come through the challenges of the place unscathed. Godden’s prose is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style. The story that starts off slowly and rather gently gradually works itself up to the heights of gothic horror, but told with enough restraint to keep it feeling completely authentic and believable. An excellent book – highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Godden’s work in the future.
Film of the book: As an occasional feature throughout the year, I’ll be watching the “film of the book” with a view to seeing how the movie version works as an interpretation of a novel, or occasionally the reverse, when I’ll be reading the book of a film I love. Black Narcissus will be the first – to see the film review, click here…