BOOK REVIEW / Stirred in the depths while praying upside down: 'Unveiled' - Mary Loudon: Chatto & Windus, 9.99 pounds

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ON THE back of this book is a photograph of a small, smiling, bespectacled nun, struggling gamely to retain control of an elderly, vast, snorting lawnmower. She is not identified, but she just might be Felicity, who discovered to her joy, when she entered the enclosed order of Poor Clares, that she possessed hitherto unimagined skills as an electrician and builder, but admitted that during the construction of a garden wall she had overturned a large and expensive JCB.

Felicity is one of 10 nuns interviewed by Mary Loudon. They are a mixed bunch, aged between 39 and 76, and at first sight all they have in common is perseverance. Ms Loudon chose no novices or ex-nuns, nor does she draw any conclusions from her long-serving Sisters. Apart from brief introductions describing their appearance and surroundings, she wisely lets them speak for themselves.

What they have to say is gripping. They talk with extraordinary frankness about what they have lived through, why they chose the religious life, what they get out of it, how they observe their vows and how they pray. The public image of nuns is saintly, saccharine or smutty - Mother Teresa, Sound of Music or strippergram. The truth is far less patronising, far more daunting. What they are is brave: what they display is integrity.

Their backgrounds are as different as can be. One comes from a large, warm Irish family in West Cork. (Ah, you're thinking, that could be Felicity, but it's not. It's Margaret Walsh, who now wears ordinary clothes and holds open house in a council flat on a large estate in Wolverhampton. Felicity's home was Borstal, where her father was governor.) One was a ballerina, one an undertaker's assistant, one a consultant anaesthetist, one a horse-trainer. Three grew up in pre-war Germany, but even they had very different experiences. One recognised the Nazi threat from the beginning, one went so far as to become a Hitler Youth leader before seeing the light, and the third, who was Jewish, barely escaped with her life.

This last, Eva Heymann, tells harrowing stories about her early years. Arriving in England was a mixed blessing; it no longer mattered that she was Jewish, but it did that she was German. Her vocation she sees partly as atonement for the Holocaust, but her joy now comes from working with the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Eva had seen herself as a very difficult person to live with, but the Aids patients taught her that she was lovable. Hers is 'the God who forgives not once only, but as often as needed . . . Oh, the wrath-of- God brigade and I are poles apart'.

Like Eva Heymann, two other nuns spend their lives caring for the dying. Both are medically trained and work in hospices for sick children. The older, Marion Eva, tackles the problem of pain head on. She is, anyway, a head-on person whose vocation, she says, 'hit me. Just like that. It hit me like a sledgehammer; with that sort of force'. There is no glory in suffering, she says. 'The only glory of God, as I see it - and it isn't like a great sunburst - is in self-giving love.'

Her hospice was inspired by the one at Helen House, the founder of which is also interviewed. Frances Dominica is probably the best known of the lot. Her approach is similar: 'There is no suffering so extreme that an offering of human friendship and compassion is not the most appropriate thing.'

None of them is afraid of death; most of them have difficulty with one or more of the vows. The farther out of the convent they go, the more critical of the Church they become. The oldest got as far as an ashram in India, by way of a prestigious girls' school and a hermit's caravan. She prefers to meditate hanging upside down from two ropes on the ceiling, and her definition of prayer is 'a stirring in the depths of oneself'. My favourite, though, in this gallery of magnificent women, is Felicity. This is her philosophy: 'As each thing comes up I have to try and respond with truth and love - and inevitably fail at times, because I'm a human being.'