Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

black narcissusTill the rains break…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger
The palace at Mopu from the 1947 film by Powell and Pressburger

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.

Rumer Godden

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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…

77 thoughts on “Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

  1. Oh, my, FictionFan, I’ve not read Rumer Godden in years. Not in years! And your excellent post has reminded me of just how well her characters are drawn. As you say, she doesn’t do it obtrusively, but you really do get to know the characters, and you certainly get a sense of place. Her stories sneak up on you – or they do on me. What a lovely reminder of a talented writer.

    • I’ve never read her before, but I’ll certainly be looking for more of her stuff! Yes, at first I thought it was going to be a gentle little story but she built the tension up so well as it went on – reminded me of du Maurier…

    • This is the only one I’ve read but I’ll certainly be looking out for more. She seems to be coming back into fashion a bit, probably because Vintage Classics have republished some of her books…

  2. I keep hearing about this book! I love a book that “is flowing and effortless, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story without being distracted by any flamboyancy of style.”

    • Yes, I think she’s coming back into fashion a bit at the moment. After Virginia Woolf, it was sheer pleasure to read someone who wrote in a more understated style. And her characterisation was brilliant…

  3. Thank you for a great reminder about a wonderful author. Like Ms Kinberg, I
    haven’t read Rumer Godden in years! But have read five, and put stars on
    three of those in my book record—Black Narcissus looks like a good read, too.

    • I’ve never read her before, but this certainly won’t be the last! I think Vintage Classics have republished a few of her books so she’s coming back into fashion a bit – well deserved!

    • I watched it the other night for the first time – great! I love these old forties and fifties films – there’s something about the way they were made that makes them fab to watch and re-watch.

    • I didn’t know her at all, but she seems to be being republished over here – hopefully they’ll make their way over to you soon. I’ll certainly be trying to fit in more…

  4. I haven’t read the book but I love the film. It looks beautiful, all rich colours and pent-up 1950’s sexual tension which seems to simmer throughout the film. Looking forward to your film review and I hope one day to get round to reading the book

    • I watched the film the other night and yes, it’s great! I love the colours they used back in those days – it makes them more cinematic somehow. I do hope you’ll get around to the book one day – I think you’ll enjoy it!

  5. I’ve been a fan of Rumer Godden’s children’s books since I was a child (‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ was a real favourite) and a friend recently recommended her adult fiction. I’ve been picking up the odd one when I’ve seen them in secondhand bookshops but have yet to give one a try – you know how it is with mushrooming TBR piles! Well, you’ve just convinced me to crack on with it. I’m sure ‘Black Narcissus’ is one of the ones I bought, I shall now go and try to remember what I’ve done with it!

    • I never came across either her children’s or adult fiction before, but have seen her mentioned a few times recently. Definitely dig it out of the heap! She seems to have been quite prolific so I’m looking forward to getting to know her better… just as soon as my own heap goes down a bit!!

  6. Now this has been sitting on the TBR for a while now. Someone (it might have been Jane) reminded me of it, and I loved the Powell and Pressburger film seen on one of those popping up from time to time on TV outings. I love their stuff. I must move this now higher up on the TBR, with two glowing bloggy reviews, its case is being more urgently pleaded.

    However – 3 books arrived in the post today, another one downloaded itself yesterday and Netgalley approved me for something so that makes 5 in 24 hours. I don’t know whether to be relieved on disappointed that i got turned down for 2 other books on the Galley. Ay me!

    And then there are 3 books I’ve been having some conversations about which make me want to re-read them……………………………..

    • Yes, I saw at least one review of it in the last few months too, but unusually haven’t made a note of where. I watched the film the other night and it’s great! I think this would be a perfect LF read actually – the emphasis very much in the characters rather than the action, though there’s plenty of that too…

      Ha! You should be more self-controlled, like me… *sobs* Actually I’ve been a bit better recently with NG, but this film to book thing is just another great excuse to acquire more books… and films!

          • Snickers wildly, reminded of a previous HAIR comedy moment on your site, which your dear friend the Professor, your good self and my good self engaged in, and then (chokes, squeals) the hair subject paid a visit. Ha ha ha ha ha. I look forward to Mr Kermode’s visit, probably because you will snitch his glasses as well as visiting his coiffureist, asking for ‘a Kermode, please’

            • Did I ever mention that Aatish Taseer popped in when I raved about his book… just after I had referred to him in the comments as ‘yummy’. Will I never learn?? Haha! I’m about to read another book by the be-haired one – I shall have to omit the author pic to be on the safe side, I fear…

            • Not even if the Professor and I promise to zip our lips and not mention anything about scissors, shampoos or conditioners. I can’t promise I wouldn’t make a comment about how your posts make me do a permanent wave!

              I’m at least sure that Mr Taseer would have gone away happy (unless you did a rip?)

            • Ah, but would I be able to trust either of you? Or me, if it comes to that! I still believe, though, that someone would only have such a hairdo in order to act as a conversation starter, surely…

              Oh, no – a 5-star rave, which he tweeted, so I assume he was pleased enough with the review to ignore my comments on his yumminess…

  7. Very interesting and enticing, FF. I love books where the setting is most influential. Place can challenge and transform you entirely. I think that remote castle would rattle my cage a bit! It looks like it belongs to the Professor. I can only imagine the mischief he’d create there! But I’m not sure about this possible “gothic horror” aspect… You know I’m a fraidy cat. Does this author show enough restraint for a place on my TBR?

    • She was brilliant at the setting. I don’t have a particularly strong imagination for being able to visualise places described in books, but I could see this place clearly – the palace and the mountains – and could pretty much taste the air… Haha! No doubt he’d have flirted shamelessly with poor Sister Ruth and driven her even more off the edge…!!

      The horror isn’t either graphic or supernatural. It made me think of Rebecca du Maurier in style, and even a little bit like Shirley Jackson in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Completely different in story, but same kind of tension and atmosphere. I think you’d enjoy it…

  8. Hmm, I’m undecided on this one. I’ll just say Thank You for an excellent review and trust the book is as interesting as you found. I’ve never read any of her books, but perhaps I should. And someone who obviously loves dogs the way she does can’t be all bad, right? (Still, it’s the “gothic horror” aspect that has me so undecided!)

    • I think you’d enjoy it, Debbie! As I was just saying to DD, the horror aspects aren’t either graphic or supernatural. More like Daphne du Maurier or even Shirley Jackson – that slow build up of tension and atmosphere leading up to a climax. And there’s a dog in nearly every picture of her…

    • I know I came across her name around the blogosphere a while back, but unusually forgot to take a note of where – I suspect it may have been on your blog. I have to say while I was reading this, I felt it had your name all over it… enjoy!

    • Apparently the film is really famous, though somehow I’d missed it until now. But her books seem to be making a bit of a comeback at the moment – definitely well-deserved! If you ever get a chance, I think you’d enjoy it…

  9. This sounds marvelous! I’ve recently begun to read some of Rumer Godden’s books and admire how she writes. I felt somewhat ambivalent about the film, which is why I haven’t read the book yet, but your review tempts me strongly to give it a try.

    • I watched the film just the other night and loved it – but I was mainly watching it to see how well it had been adapted from the book. I don’t know what I’d have thought of it if I hadn’t read the book – I think the film comes over as a little more melodramatic at the end than the book does (there’s one fairly major change that I suspect may have been to do with Hollywood sensibilities). I think you’ll maybe prefer the book – I did, although I thought both were great…

      • I might have to give it another try after reading the book, then. It’s such a stunningly visual film that I felt like the plot sometimes was less clear, but perhaps, as you say, the book will enrich the movie. I was recently rethinking my dictum to read the book before watching the movie (because some movies I watched were disappointing in comparison), but this seems like an example where it helps to read the book first!

        • Yes, the colouring is great and I have to say I’ve rarely seen a film of a book where the place is literally just as I imagined it. And most of the characters are pretty perfectly cast too – except for the non-Indian Indians, but that was just the norm for the period, I suppose…

  10. If her book is anything like your review, I won’t be able to stop. Thank you, I think, for introducing me to a writer I’ve never read before. Gulp. If I were a nun at that convent, I’d be in charge of reading and nothing else. No one, not even Mr. Dean, would be able to distract me from the TBR pile.

    • Oh, thank you, Jilanne! I think you’ll find the book is much better than the review! A slow-burner – good from the off but it kinda sneaks up on you… reasonably short though! Ah, even I might look up from my book if Mr Dean came into the room… 😉

  11. Haven’t read this for – er, a very long time! “The Nun’s Story” came out when I was in my early teens, and like every other reading girl in the country, I went on a “books about nuns” kick. This was one of the best of them.

    • I’ve never read anything by her before, but this was really excellent. And it wasn’t too nunny, if you know what I mean. They were kinda women first, nuns second. I’ll be looking out for more from her…

  12. Rumer Godden was a favourite in our house as a children’s author – I must have read The Dolls House numerous times so it was good to have your view on this one which sounds delightful – I haven’t watched the film (or even heard of it) though.

    • I missed her completely as a child – in fact, I’d never heard of her till a few months ago. Or the film! But my brother (the film buff in the family) rated the film highly so I felt I was on safe ground with it. I think you’d love the book… 😉

  13. A lovely review of a book that I love. Rumer Godden was one of my favourite authors as a child but I forgot that she wrote for adults too until I saw the Powell and Pressburger film of this book and spotted her name in the credits.

    • Thank you, Jane! Somehow I missed her as a child and had never heard of her as an adult writer until very recently. In fact, it was a blog post that drew her to my attention and, unusually for me, I didn’t keep a note of where I saw it. I think it was either your blog or Heavenali’s… so if it was you, thank you!

  14. Loving the film/book idea thingy. After I read a book I like I always want to see the film.

    Now, the Nuns are being silly, I say. Imagine the isolation of that great castle along with that great scenery! One could just sit back (forget the garden!) and do fun things. Like go exploring, for instance.

    Of course…you leave me wanting to know what happens…!

    • Thank you! Me too! It’ll mainly be old classics though, since they’re my faves…

      But the wind! You’d have to be careful not to get blown off the mountain! I agree though – they just didn’t make the best of the experience – they didn’t even check for Yetis…

      Aha! Well, see, you could watch the film! *rushes off to set up a new To Be Watched List for the Prof*

    • Haha! I’m actually doing it to try to force myself to do something other than reading occasionally – even if it’s only watching films of books! Both are brilliant – and the movie takes less time than the book… 😉

  15. I wondered if it would end darkly, and your review suggests it did! There are many stories of people who wish to seek isolation to get closer to god, and the ending is always terrible (usually, someone gets chopped up). Your review reminded me of a report I was listening to on NPR about these monks in Michigan who, in the 1908s, wanted to start a new monastery. Problem is, these guys lived in southern Michigan, near Detroit, and the monastery would be as far north as you can get in Michigan, waaaay up in the upper peninsula. Now, people like me, who are from Michigan (I don’t believe these gents were) know that the upper and lower halves of the state are NOTHING alike. The first batch of monks nearly went crazy and died!

    • Ha! Yes, isolation can be over-rated! One of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, is set in the Arctic during the long winter with no daylight and one isolated man… But did he go insane or was there really a… thing… out there in the snow… *shivers*

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