The Sisters of Béthanie, a French order of Dominican nuns, dedicate themselves to caring for the outcasts of society – criminals, prostitutes and drug addicts. Lise, an English girl who after the liberation of Paris was employed in one of the city’s smartest brothels and rose to become a successful madame, finds herself joining the Sisters. Master storyteller Rumer Godden weaves a deeply moving tale of Lise’s prison sentence, her conversion and the agonising work among women whose traumatic experiences often outstrip even her own.
I’ve always loved Virago – when I was younger and discovering lots of women writers, the Virago stand in my local bookshop was the go-to place for me on a Saturday morning (what a nerd I was), but I have never read anything by Rumer Godden. So when this was recommended to me, I was very curious. I have to admit though, that the subject matter really didn’t appeal. I’m an atheist and I have little time at all for religion. I’d far rather sit down and read some Christopher Hitchens than a book about nuns, but I decided to give this one a try.
I’m very glad I did, although I did have some difficulty with the subject matter. Lise is a Sister of Bethanie, dedicated to caring for the outcasts, for prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes, the lowest of the low. Through extremely clever structuring, we move back and forth through her life and learn how she became a nun, her past as a prostitute, and why that happened to her.
We also learn a great deal about the life of a nun, of the daily, weekly and monthly routines. This was very interesting and insightful and not at all dull to read, because Godden’s prose is absolutely stunning. And this is why I can set aside any misgivings about the subject matter – the book is a joy to read because of the sheer beauty of the writing. I felt as though I truly knew Lise. The portrayals of other characters, particularly Vivi, are striking and compelling to read. There is no judgement here, and no judgement from the nuns either and this felt more like a book about people, than about religion.
This is one of those books that you can’t wait to get back to. I’ll definitely be reading more by this author.