Obedience, English author Jacqueline Yallop’s American debut, is a stunning story about betrayal, desire and loneliness. The story, told in a series of flashbacks, takes place in and around a convent located in the French countryside. As the convent prepares to close its doors for the last time, its remaining residents – three elderly nuns – are in the process of moving into a nursing home. Sister Marie, the oldest of the three who suffers from numerous ailments, will be the first to leave for the home, while Sister Bernard and Sister Therese remain behind to pack and close the building.
At the story’s outset, Sister Therese, the youngest of the three must decide whether she will follow the two nuns to the nursing home or move in with a lay friend who has offered her a place in her home. While she ponders her dilemma, Sister Bernard begins to think about the traumatic events which took place in the convent during WWII. Sister Bernard, the book’s protagonist is a young simple-minded nun, constantly distracted by the voice of God which berates her daily for her shortcomings. Bernard becomes the target of a bet between a young German and his fellow soldiers. Attracted to the young man, she engages in an illicit affair with him despite the warnings she hears in her head from God. Once the soldier has won the bet, he continues to seek Sister Bernard out, and the two become the subject of convent and village gossip. Aware of the nun’s actions, the Mother Superior cautions Sister Bernard of the dangerous times they are living in and asks her to be circumspect.
Mother Catherine went quickly into her study and shut Bernard out. The other nuns filed past, not seeming to notice. Bernard remained by the study door. She was not sure what had been said, but she did understand vaguely, that it was about the soldier, and that she risked everything she knew if she continued to love him.”
Yallop is a brilliant writer, who draws the reader in with prose that effectively reflects the different emotions and reactions displayed through the novel’s plot and characters. There is an emotional detachment that exists within all of the characters as they deal with and reflect on the event that was ultimately their undoing. Sister Bernard is a complex individual whose behavior leads the reader to both admire and loathe her during the course of the story. Sister Therese, on the other hand, cannot blame her lack of compassion on a disability. She is younger and appears to have considerably more knowledge of life outside the convent. Through the actions and attitudes of the two nuns which alternate between shocking and indifferent, they manage to create a balance of sorts that keeps the reader guessing for the duration of the novel.
Obedience is an intense read that shouldn’t be rushed. It takes its time, telling a story whose questions stay with the reader long after the last page has been read, and should be savored and stretched out over more than one night of reading.
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