January 1, 2012

The Nun's Story (novel)

1956 novel. Written by Kathryn Hulme.

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Berlin, the late 1920s. Still heartbroken over a failed engagement (her father didn't approve), Gaby Van der Mal decides to pledge her life to God by becoming a nun. Still able to pursue her goal of medicinal care, the book chronicles the next 17 years of her life as she goes through rigorous training and discipline, attends a university, spends a stretch working in a sanitarium, then fulfils her secret dream of travelling to the Congo to treat natives alongside a famous surgeon. But as the years pass and World War II blooms into existence, she finds her faith and choice of lifestyle increasingly tested.

I'll be completely upfront and honest: I am an atheist who has little to no interest in the workings of organized religion. The same goes for faith, which I don't put much personal stock in. With all that hanging on my back, you'd think I'd crash up against this book like a bus doing 90 straight into a brick wall .... but I was pleasantly surprised. While I don't support religion, there's a structural foundation there I sometimes find interesting to examine, and this is a book that peels back the layers of such orders and disciplines. While I'm not a man of faith, this book isn't about promoting such a mindset, but rather about exploring the people who see the world through those eyes. What makes them tick? What makes them different? What makes them unique and special and respectable?

It all works because of the character of Gaby, now renamed Sister Luke. She isn't just interested in pursuing medicine so she can dab at foreheads and change bedpans, she has an analytical mind that's all about studying chemicals and diseases. Her father is a successful doctor and, despite his rejection of her love driving her into the convent, she still has the passion for scientific learning he instilled in her. And, no, her conflict isn't the expected one of science versus religion - both her and her father were people of deep faith before all of this, after all - but rather that of order and reason versus tradition. The convent is a place of very strict rules, where sometimes you have to sacrifice in order to succeed. Such is the case when a mother superior tells her to fail an important university exam, the one she'd been prepping for over the last few years, all so it'll make another nun feel better about her struggling grades. Humbling oneself is a highly prized thing in this world, but would it truly be God's will that she appease the other nun's vanity? If she decides to go against it and pass the test, will that just make Sister Luke the vain one? It's ethical quandaries like these that she has an increasingly difficult time wrapping her head around, making for a very honest, very compelling lead character that I could relate to the entire way.

And it must be added that she did open my eyes to a lot of the beauty of the practice. The way every nun falls into a perfect place, be it laundry, cooking, studying, teaching, to the point where the convent is like the perfectly timed inner workings of a clock. Or the way that the nuns shy away from personal pride or fame, even as the mother superiors fill their offices with articles about and souvenirs from the sisters' worldly journeys. Or the way they can be so perfectly at peace with their own lives that they die with a simple grace, even when it comes in the form of brutal murder.

But there's still the honesty. Right up front, they admit not every nun will make it through the training. It's neither a judgment against them nor the system, but merely an accepted truth that some people aren't meant for certain lives. Which especially hits home when Sister Luke sees the world around her crumble into war and feels the drive to take action pulling her away from the convent as all her old doubts rise right back to the surface.

A gently honest surprise of a book, Hulme crafts a deeply simple life story around a complex, questioning heroine, and I was fascinated and rewarded the entire way.

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