Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy

After the histrionics of 'Black Narcissus', enjoyable as they are, as is the accompanying famous film, the novelist, Rumer Godden was to write two more novels rooted in the life of a convent (indeed she converted to Roman Catholicism and saw both works as making a more realistic amends for that first book)!

'Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy' (which is a reference to the cycles of the Rosary) is set betwixt a brothel, more than one prison and the Dominican community of the Sisters of Bethanie. The Sisters were founded out of the prison experience of Father Lataste in nineteenth century France and became an order that welcomed as full members people who found their vocation at any age and any background, most especially those that resonated with the life of Mary Magdalene - all kinds of brokenness in search of redemption, not least out of prison. No one in the order ever knew their fellow members backgrounds - what mattered was not who you had been but who you could become.

The central character is Lise who as a young, naive woman finds herself in Paris on the day of its liberation, lost and vulnerable, and is seduced by the charms of Patrice, older, manipulative and the owner of a brothel into which Lise finds herself drawn. What I always find remarkable in Godden is her ability to marry plots that strike you as commonplace, often a touch melodramatic (and she herself worried 'middlebrow') with a wonderful psychological acuity, sense of place and an underlying girding of realism (often born out of patient research and in many cases her own autobiography). You see and feel what it might mean for a person, Lise, starved of love, coming from a narrow life in England, to fall in love with a man such as Patrice and sustain that even when he, periodically, and with acute, dark judgement, turns violent; and, even turns her over, later, in favour of a younger, even more damaged and manipulable, girl, Vivi.

Realistic too in how all Lise's subsequent attempts to help Vivi escape her fate into the possibilities of a new life run aground on the depth of Vivi's wounds and lead to a confrontation with Patrice and a perceived crime of passion - in Lise killing Patrice believing herself to be protecting Vivi, a protection she discovers too late that Vivi clearly does not want.

In prison, Lise discovers the Sisters of Bethanie who come and visit and which lead to her vocation. This story is expertly told, its turns and difficulties, the necessary disillusionment and discovery of community as a real, hard, rewarding, occasionally deeply blessed life. It beautifully balances the psychological unfolding and an openness to a world that, if we look and sometimes when we do not, can receive grace, into which miracle can break. It, also, reveals Godden as a master of describing space - you taste the unfolding seasons, sense the routines punctuated by the grace of feasts, the complexity of living together and the boredom and holiness of the routines and graces of prayer.

Returning to prison, many years later, now as a visiting Sister, inevitably, for this is a drama, she must encounter Vivi, now a prisoner herself, and reconnect with her long nurtured vindictive hatred, a hatred that will end in tragedy for one of the nun's and the book's open ended question as to whether redemption is possible for every one? Is it the case that every soul, God's image, will find it? Or as the 'pagan' but sympathetic, warden of the prison Lise visits, puts it that the 'devil' too is divine and she has seen him in full, resonant occupation? Can we be so broken by the traumas of life, as Vivi appears to be, that no healing is possible, this side of the grave?

For me, reading this, was deeply resonant - all my years first working with, writing to and supporting people in prison and subsequently helping others to carry the work forward and seeing the same patterns and questions embodied here; and, second emerging with the abiding conviction that if healing ultimately belongs to God, God has no other hands, to quote St Theresa of Avila, than ours and so we witness, so do we reap. We can never expect transformation, we can only hope, and work.

It, also, re-energised my contemplative ache - never far away - and in the cool, quiet lucid descriptions of the celebrated feasts and in them God's presence. It went a little way to deepening it while, paradoxically applying balm.


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