Hazel McHaffie

religious life

Second time around

I am lost in admiration. What a terrific skill it is for a story to begin in a writer’s imagination and finish vividly in the reader’s, and for someone to be just as riveted by it even on a subsequent reading when the end is known.

It’s extremely rare for me to read a book a second time; there are just far too many new ones out there, but one indulgence of my convalescence post-surgery has been lots of extra sitting-down-time. So, I made a conscious decision this week to revisit one of my favourites: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein, which I mentioned in my last post, and see how I felt about it now. It’s probably about 15 years since I bought it and although I remembered the final twist in the tale, I certainly couldn’t recall the detail. I’m in a different place myself today, much more analytical/critical, much more intrigued by the structure of a story, the skill of the writing – would I love it as much today as I did then?

In brief so as not to spoil the joy for anyone else:
Two young women – one a nun in a Latin American country and the other a prisoner in a London penitentiary – are linked in some inexplicable and potentially deadly way. One has given her life in service to God, the other is serving a life sentence for killing a child. Now the nun is nearing death but the cause of her illness is baffling both the medics and the nuns. Intrigued by certain peculiarities in her behaviour and drawn to this fragile and clearly troubled young religious fading away in front of him, a Jesuit priest is determined to do what he can to discover what links these two women and halt this spiral towards an untimely death. As he’s drawn deeper into the horror of their stories he’s forced to face his own demons and choices.

And yes, it was every bit as mesmerising, every bit as impressive, as I remembered. The three main characters are beautifully wrought, their back-stories are cleverly unravelled; you get drawn in by each of them, caring about what happens to them all. Then there’s exactly the right amount of suspense and revelation to keep you on the edge of your seat. And it’s very neatly balanced, with sharp contrasts: life in a closed religious order / in a prison; warm parenting / pathological; devotion to God / craving for human closeness; right / wrong; selfish ambition / self sacrificing love. In a couple of places the author’s research is perhaps a little two obvious, and the detail in the sex scenes doesn’t sit comfortably in the context, but her understanding of the various settings is rich and authentic, and with a deftness of touch she has created evocative settings and secondary characters that come alive on the page.

I am blown away for the second time. And I take this opportunity to salute all authors who have the skill to tell a gripping and challenging tale of this order … including Linda Castillo whose blood-chilling thriller, Sworn to Silence, I picked up next. Castillo’s new to me but I was left awed by her ability to capture very different worlds too. The nuances of life in the gentle peace-loving Amish community and what makes an Amish father refuse to travel in a police car but instead trundle for hours in a horse and buggy to identify his murdered daughter, on the one hand. The psychology of a sociopath who tortures and kills innocent young women without compunction, and who, though he has teenage daughters of his own, can slit the throats and eviserate the bodies and carve his trademark numerals into the skin of other parents’ living daughters, at the other end of the spectrum.

How can someone imagine all this, capture it, convey it so brilliantly? What trauma have they endured doing so?

The poet and novelist, Ben Okri, gave a speech at the 2017 Society of Authors’ Awards in London and put it like this:
‘…writing well, writing really well, so that it is still fresh and alive in a hundred years, is harder than being the prime minister, the president or almost any other job on earth. And why is it so hard? Because it is a damn mystery how it is done. Intelligence doesn’t do it. cleverness doesn’t do it, the right college or university or writing school won’t do it. It is a mystery how it is done, and a miracle when it is done.
Here’s to the art and the craft, the mystery and the miracle.’

Amen.

 

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What’s in a name?

Today’s post emerges from two people who share a name and whose actions have impinged upon my life as a writer.

The first is Marcel Proust, said to be one of the greatest French authors of the 20th Century. OK, he died in 1922, when my mother was 2 years old – so why is he affecting me in 2017?

Well, one of my pet hates is people who endlessly trumpet their own success or brilliance. It happens sometimes on social media, but at least then you usually know who the guilty party is and can assess/dismiss their accolades for what they’re worth. It’s a different matter when they do it incognito. Over the years, various people – reporters, other authors – have exposed writers for faking reviews of their own books and there’s widespread condemnation for such practices.

So it’s something of a paradox that big money is being made out of fraud that predates electronic communication and computers. But so it is. Letters Proust wrote to his editor have recently come to light which show that he employed his legendary literary skill to write superlative reviews of his own novels – really over-the-top, immodest attributions, I mean; comparing himself favourably to Charles Dickens – which were then published under other names or anonymously. And what’s more, his publisher was complicit in this practice.

The letters were discovered in a rare early copy of one of his books – whoops! But those same letters are now themselves going under the hammer at the end of this month and are expected to realise a handsome sum – and I’m talking hundreds of thousands of pounds here! Of course, it’s only because Proust’s work is so highly respected that there’s such a stooshie but still …

What a weirdly convoluted world we live in. I may be (I am!) too backward in coming forward where my own books are concerned, but my conscience is more at ease with that than it ever could be with indecent or unsavoury or unethical promotion.

The second Marcel is actually Marcelle: Marcelle Bernstein. Heard of her? Probably not  – although she’s a woman of distinction with several awards under her belt. And I’m sure she has never stooped to boost her own profile by anything so ill-judged as Proust. I mention her for quite a different reason. I loved her book Sacred and Profane when I read it years ago, but until this week I’d never got around to reading anything else she’s written. When Body and Soul came to the top of my tbr pile, of course, the shared name struck me as an interesting coincidence.

The author, Bernstein, herself has actually lived in a Carmellite convent as part of her research for a documentary about the life of the religious, and she can write about the inner turmoils as well as the outer deprivations with some authority and understanding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sacred and Profane and Body and Soul are set in nunneries.

I’ve reviewed Sacred and Profane (1995) elsewhere so I’ll limit my comments to Body and Soul (1991) which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I confess I was disappointed this time around. Sister Gabriel (Anna in the outside world) is in her early thirties and struggling with her vows after 13 years in a closed contemplative order in Wales. Her inner anguish is exposed to greater scrutiny when her brother Simon commits suicide leaving behind a pregnant wife, two small boys, a stack of debts, and a failing woollen mill. Anna is given a rather begrudging dispensation to go out into the outside world to help her distraught sister-in-law, and suddenly she’s aware of how much isolation and seclusion from temptation have been protecting her from her own wants and needs. ‘The habit had been a medieval chrysalis, protecting her from the twentieth century. It had given her a version of herself she could no longer accept: too passive, too patient, negative.’

Once outside, this rather stern, solitary, sheltered woman falls prey to many a worldly emotion and lure. For me, I must confess, the plot was too thin, I didn’t care enough about the characters, and worse, Anna’s fall from grace simply didn’t ring true. Would a shy inhibited puritan with so many sexual hangups and taboos really submit so easily to the gropings of assorted men she’d just met? Would she abandon so many of her customary ingrained habits and adopt hitherto shunned and despised practices? I think not. So for me, this book was perfectly readable, but not believable or memorable.

Why then do I mention it? Because it reinforces the fact that reading is subjective, that an author will probably not please all the people all the time, that research only takes a novelist so far, and that one can never rest on one’s laurels in this business. Even a book loved decades ago might not appeal where the same reader is today. All important lessons for me as a writer and my own most severe critic.

 

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