Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A group of nuns, led by stubborn Irish born Sister Clodagh are assigned to a remote estate in the Himalayas to start a convent, run a school, and an infirmary for the local villagers. It's a monumental task that Sister Clodagh feels tentatively up to, and one already abandoned by priests who failed at a similar endeavor. All the basic elements for plot tension are here, personality clashes between the nuns, culture shock, loss of faith, and the ever needling presence of the only white man in the area, a handsome alcoholic handyman named Mr. Dean.
The book succeeds the most in the searingly realistic portrayals of the women and their differences. They are sworn to a life of chastity and poverty before God, but they are after all, just women. Godden writes with a keen eye, and you feel the frustrations and elations of each of these women as they fail and succeed at the various impossible tasks set before them. Mr. Dean is also a well written character, a classic charming drunk who despises the very presence of these women in his world, while at the same time startling with his concern and respect for them.
The vivid descriptions of the flowers, mountains, the sky, the weather, the smells and food, are very well done and the estate and the country do indeed become their own character, a cruel and beautiful creature that nurses the natives to her breast just as surely as she wears the nuns down one by one.
My biggest complaint about the book, although considering the context of the time it was written perhaps it was unavoidable, is that the natives in the novel are painted over with one brown brush that stamps each and every one of them with the phrase "ignorant savage". The nuns either condescend to them, adopting them like little pets, or they despise them as formless creatures. At one point, a character surprises herself when she realizes that she can start telling them apart. Even Mr. Dean, the character who can speak their language and is basically living with them day in and out, brushes them aside as overgrown children that should be treated as such.
The housekeeper, Ayah, is well written, a flinty, no-nonsense native woman who begrudginly welcomes the nuns to the estate and becomes the balance between the two cultures. The other non-white characters Kanchi and General Dilip are both written as ditzy, shallow, spoiled youths who do nothing more than infuriate and confound the nuns.
There's a lot to be said for the restraint in this novel. Any modern hand with these basic plot elements could have easily written something filled with sudden violence and graphic sex, or bent over low to create a steamy bodice ripper. There is sensuality in this novel, there is erotic longing, jealousy, violence, but everything happens in its own time and without gratuitousness.
I do recommend this read to anyone wanting to peek into a world one wouldn't otherwise have known existed.
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