Books: In brief

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GOING IN by Jenny Newman, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99. Nuns have always been a source of fascination to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The more materialistic and pleasure-oriented the world becomes, the more strange and unsettling seems the decision to abandon it all for a life of prayer, chastity and selfless duty. Fewer and fewer are called nowadays, and fewer still are able to stay the course. In Going In, Jenny Newman gives us a clear and simple account of such an experience, written in the form of a novel, but largely based on her own story.

Brigid Murray is a clever A-level student at a convent school in Liverpool, daughter of the shambolic Madge, a cleaner, and a father long since gone away. Under the influence of the charismatic Sister Monica, she discovers that she has a vocation; in the teeth of opposition from her mother and her outspoken friend Lorraine, she travels to the mother house of the Joubertian order in the Languedoc, to become a postulant and then a novice.

To Brigid's horror, the posh and beautiful Elisabeth Bavidge has also received the call: she too turns up at the French convent. Patronised by Elisabeth at school, Brigid will now be patronised in the convent, and in the most subtle way possible. Elisabeth constantly wrongfoots Brigid by being more poised and more in control, braver at confronting unfairness and snobbery amongst the other nuns, and kind and good and holy as well - in other words, infuriating. At the end it is Elisabeth, doing the right thing of course, who exposes to the authorities Brigid's brief and guilt-ridden lesbian affair. This brings about a crisis in the convent, which is already undergoing the post- Vatican II upheavals.

The story is straightforward and honestly told, an even-handed and intelligent account of one girl's experience. Brigid, the narrator, is far from being a totally sympathetic character - her friend Lorraine sums her up cruelly but truthfully: 'You can act the goody-goody and the creep but underneath you're as selfish as hell - and they'll crucify you when they find out.' Jenny Newman manages to show us nuns as human beings, selfish, petty, manipulative and scheming, without turning them into demons. They are also affectionate and comic, when forced for example to change from habits to knee-length Brownie dresses. When the heroine decides not to join her ex-lover's crypto-lesbian splinter group, but to remain in the safety of the order, I felt, irrationally perhaps, that she was not being cowardly, but was doing the right thing, and I could not help hoping that the sequel would not be called Coming Out. This may not have been the author's intention - she, after all, did leave - but it is proof of the subtlety and sensitivity with which she has dealt with a subject that is mysterious to so many people nowadays.