Book Review - Obedience

A convent in rural France is the backdrop to Jacqueline Yallop's spellbinding tale of betrayal and illicit desire.

Three elderly nuns prepare to leave their home of many decades. As they pack their meagre belongings, Sister Bernard, now in her nineties, recalls certain memories that threaten to disrupt her outwardly serene appearance.

Sixty years earlier, Bernard had been the victim of a callous bet between occupying Nazi soldiers: a young soldier crudely nicknamed Schwanz seduced her and unwittingly won her love. They began meeting in clandestine, until Bernard freely offered information regarding the local resistance. This act of treachery resulted in calamity for the village and a personal tragedy for Bernard.

Simple-minded and physically plain, Sister Bernard is a strangely haunting creation: "Her hair was already thin and her skin faded, her hands were wretched. No one spoke to her much, except God." The soldier, Schwanz, is neither attractive nor kind, but for Bernard "the thought of him was irresistible, a mystery. It made her feel beautiful". It is this blind devotion, and an overwhelming desire to have her loved returned, that causes Bernard to betray a fellow nun in one of the defining moments of the novel.

Outside of her religious duties, Bernard exists in a state of inertia. God's voice is ever present, scolding her. "He commented on everything she did, from the most intimate of habits to the most routine of chores." Bernard's passivity, her lack of common sense and her unquestioning acceptance of everything thrown at her, is initially exasperating. But gradually the extent of Bernard's suffering becomes clear and, later, it is her resilience and quiet fortitude that earn her our sympathy.

Alternating between the past and present, Yallop reveals how Bernard's loss of innocence and subsequent shame is internalised. When a brutal act silences God's voice in her head, Bernard is at first relieved. But discovering that her love is lost, she is stricken by despair and submits herself to a life of penance.

There are plenty of religious references in Obedience, but it is the human experience of love, desire, guilt and loneliness that are at the heart of the novel. Yallop writes with real flair about these emotions, and it is some measure of her skill that she turns a nun's failed hopes into a compelling and quietly devastating story about a woman destroyed by her faith.

Originally published in the Sunday Independent