THE CONVENT by Panos Karnezis

Book Quote:

“Sister Maria Ines walked across the courtyard observing everything as if she had never seen it before. The bell tower, the chimneys, the gargoyles on the roofs, the stork nests, the faces on the statues of the saints in the cloister, even the moss on the flagstones and the peeling paint on the doors fascinated her. For her the signs of decay were not simply reminders of the passage of time but the telltale signs of an undying remorse that trailed back to the Fall of Man.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (NOV 08, 2010)

In his latest book, The Convent, Panos Karnezis hints at the ambiguity that underlies religious faith in the first sentence: Those who God wishes to destroy he first makes mad. (Does he mean mad as in furious? Or does God drive the damned crazy, first?) And so, when a baby boy appears in a suitcase on the doorstep of an isolated Spanish convent a few paragraphs later, I was ready to be led through an oscillating narrative (is he or isn’t he a miracle?), that explored the tensions between faith and reason, independence and obedience, progress and stasis inherent to organized religion. Unfortunately, that’s not the tale Karnezis delivers, and while his minimalist prose wonderfully captures the contemplative rhythms of convent life, and well-wrought descriptive passages, interesting characters and compelling relationships abound, The Convent, which opens with so much promise, ultimately fizzles out because, not only does Karnezis fail to adequately explore the themes he sets up for himself, he commits a narrative sin – withholding key information — that leaves the reader feeling let down (and unduly manipulated) when the whole thing wraps up.

It is the early 20th century. The world has survived the WWI and the Great Influenza Epidemic. Technological progress brings economic prosperity; as the pace of life increases, so does the standard of living, leaving the newly comfortable without the time or the need for religion. As parishes dwindle, the Our Lady of Mercy convent, high in the hills of Spain, crumbles into decay, its school for novices closed for lack of interest. The six nuns who remain are as eager to be forgotten by the world as the world seems to be to forget them. And while no one talks of their past — of the life and name they renounced in taking the veil — each of these brides of Christ has lived a secular life, each has their own story to tell.

Maria Ines is the strict, but fair, Mother Superior of this group. When she’s not supervising prayer, meting out duties, or tinkering with an old Ford, a gift to the convent from Bishop Estrada, she meditates over a picture of a young navy soldier that she keeps in her room with her icons. And while her strange devotion to the photo has been noticed, no one knows anything about her relationship to this man or her secular past.

And so, when Maria Ines tells the sisters that the baby is a gift for her from God — a miracle she can’t say anything more about — and she can’t fail in her duty to protect him, the nuns accept her reticence, and whether or not they actually believe the baby’s a miracle, they’re prepared to obey their Mother Superior. Only one nun, Sister Ana, objects, and sets about convincing the Bishop that Maria Ines is possessed by the Devil.

What Maria Ines is hiding from the convent is that she had an abortion as a girl. After her lover died abroad (the naval officer), Maria Ines convinced herself that the his death was his punishment for his role in their sin. She fully expected (and wished for) God to take her life too, but when He didn’t, she took the veil hoping to redeem herself. She volunteered for missionary work in Africa, and the hardships and privations associated with her job there as a nurse thrilled her. But, a near-fatal bout of malaria sent her back to Europe and the Our Lady of Mercy convent, where every day she prays for a sign, not of God’s forgiveness, but that her redemption is even possible. After all these years, what else could the baby be but the sign that she’s been waiting for, and with her salvation so intimately linked to the child’s well-being, Maria Ines fights to keep him close to her with an energy that can only be described as mad.

However, one of the major faults of the story is that it is too focused on the question of whether or not Maria Ines will be able to keep the baby, while no one seems appropriately concerned about where the baby came from. That no one was excited, or curious, or ecstatic about even the possibility of a miracle in their midst – these six women who’ve devoted their life to the possibility of miracles! — I found odd and disconcerting. The nuns just tacitly seemed to assume that the baby was left at the convent by a woman unwilling to leave him at the overcrowded orphanage.

With that being said, there is something compelling about this book. The story of Bishop Estrada’s attempt to save a condemned intellectual moved me deeply, and there is something poignant about these women and their relationship to each other, and the simple pleasures they create for themselves isolated from the world. And while Maria Ines guilt ultimately drives her mad (ah, so that’s mad as in crazy!) that we never get to hear all these women’s stories is the real tragedy in this book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 3 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company (November 8, 2010)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Contemporary Writers on Panos Karnezis
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Compelling books that hold mysteries, if not miracles:

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

The Miracles of Santo Fico by D.L. Smith


November 8, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Spain, World Lit

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