21st Jul 2011
Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop
Jacqueline Yallop’s second novel Obedience is a twisting but tightly written story, giving us blurred, fragmented glimpses of the past, which mirror the increasingly murky memory of 93-year-old Sister Bernard.
The nun’s life itself is obscured and muddy, both physically – she spends her life cleaning and gardening in service to her ever-fastidious God – and morally, soiled by vow-breaking decisions that have tragic consequences. The past we’re given is as ambiguous as Bernard, described variously as villain or victim, simpleton or saint.
We follow Bernard from her brief love affair with a German soldier during the Nazi occupation of her small French town, to her eviction from the crumbling convent where she’s spent most of her life.
With only three elderly nuns remaining, the convent is closed and the women are packed off to various retirement options. As they sort through their meagre belongings and prepare to leave their home and their God, they reflect on what they’ve gained and lost in their service.
Bernard devastates the world around her when she begins a sexual relationship with a young Nazi soldier, a relationship that he initiates when he’s cruelly dared by fellow soldiers to seduce her.
Her infatuation, subsequent betrayal of her religion and nation and the horrific consequences, mark the end of her simple, faithful existence and haunt her for life. Yet this love pales in comparison to her complicated relationships with God and her fellow nuns.
Bernard communes directly with God, his voice a belligerent and mundane monologue in her head, disapproving of everything he sees, fretting over tarnished silverware and scuffed shoes. The God character is a brilliant creation: petty, pitiable and oddly funny, utterly unlike other fictional depictions of the holy.
When Bernard’s life is shaken by a devastating revelation, God goes silent; she revels in the peace while despairing that he’s left her. In her constant anxiety at being berated by God, she has clarity of purpose. Her faith never quite requires faith; there is no need for belief when her deity is intimately and casually ever-present.
Sister Bernard spends her final days in the company of two other elderly nuns, one deaf, one senile and incontinent. They live in a comfortable routine and a shared sense of duty to one another, but their mutual dislike is never far from the surface.
Superficially, love and duty clash in Obedience, and one must be sacrificed for the other; but in the relationships among the nuns, love and duty blur. Actions motivated by a desire to do what is right and dutiful become, in a way, gestures of love: from the wiping of drool from a chin, to sitting silently for hours next to a weeping sister.
Gut-wrenching but never melodramatic, Yallop’s simple prose gives subtle poignancy to what could otherwise be a well-worn tragic plot. The bitty description of past and present, given second-hand or through memories distorted by dementia, almost creates a mystery story; we’re left on our own to sort the truth from lies, and the miracles from madness.
Published by Atlantic Books on 1 August 2011, it is available in hardback for £6.99.
Recommended for: Anyone looking for an elegant reflection on ageing, faith and madness.
Other recommended reading: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, for more forbidden Nazi love.