Obedience, By Jacqueline Yallop
The nun who lost her heart to a Nazi
Sunday 21 August 2011
A convent in rural France is the backdrop to Jacqueline Yallop's spellbinding tale of betrayal and illicit desire.
Three elderly nuns prepare to leave their home of many decades. As they pack their meagre belongings, Sister Bernard, now in her nineties, recalls certain memories that threaten to disrupt her outwardly serene appearance.
Sixty years earlier, Bernard had been the victim of a callous bet between occupying Nazi soldiers: a young soldier crudely nicknamed Schwanz seduced her and unwittingly won her love. They began meeting in clandestine, until Bernard freely offered information regarding the local resistance. This act of treachery resulted in calamity for the village and a personal tragedy for Bernard.
Simple-minded and physically plain, Sister Bernard is a strangely haunting creation: "Her hair was already thin and her skin faded, her hands were wretched. No one spoke to her much, except God." The soldier, Schwanz, is neither attractive nor kind, but for Bernard "the thought of him was irresistible, a mystery. It made her feel beautiful". It is this blind devotion, and an overwhelming desire to have her loved returned, that causes Bernard to betray a fellow nun in one of the defining moments of the novel.
Outside of her religious duties, Bernard exists in a state of inertia. God's voice is ever present, scolding her. "He commented on everything she did, from the most intimate of habits to the most routine of chores." Bernard's passivity, her lack of common sense and her unquestioning acceptance of everything thrown at her, is initially exasperating. But gradually the extent of Bernard's suffering becomes clear and, later, it is her resilience and quiet fortitude that earn her our sympathy.
Alternating between the past and present, Yallop reveals how Bernard's loss of innocence and subsequent shame is internalised. When a brutal act silences God's voice in her head, Bernard is at first relieved. But discovering that her love is lost, she is stricken by despair and submits herself to a life of penance.
There are plenty of religious references in Obedience, but it is the human experience of love, desire, guilt and loneliness that are at the heart of the novel. Yallop writes with real flair about these emotions, and it is some measure of her skill that she turns a nun's failed hopes into a compelling and quietly devastating story about a woman destroyed by her faith.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 2 Emma Watson on Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak: 'Even worse than seeing women's privacy violated is reading the comments'
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Scottish independence referendum: Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai and Frightened Rabbit to play in support of Yes campaign
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Olivia Colman and Mary Berry top Radio Times' female power list
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain