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Book Corner January 2011

The Convent

by Panos Karnezis
New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.  2010.  Pp. 212


Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl            

Greek author, Panos Karnezis, has written an evocative work set in a remote part of the Spanish sierra sometime in the early twentieth century.  Six nuns are all that remain in the crumbling Our Lady of Mercy convent.  Most are haunted by the particular demons of their own past and choices.  Mother Superior Maria Ines initiates the moment which changes the lives of all the convent’s inhabitants.  A suitcase, punched with air holes is brought to her:  “She opened the locks of the old suitcase, raised the lid with a trembling hand and saw a baby lying naked on a thick layer of cotton wool…It was a boy.” (2)

Sister Ines is determined to keep the child and with the help of another nun feeds, clothes and nurtures him.  She is a stubborn, talented and brilliant woman who is the leader of the community and can fix their old Model T and celebrate Mass (yes) with confidence. Opinion is divided over the child’s appearance and Sister Ines’ determination to keep him.  Events take a sharp turn when Mother Ines, bitten and wishing to protect the baby, poisons a band of mongrel dogs that are fed at the convent by another sister.  The local bishop becomes involved, a man of thoughtful and gentle manner.

To describe much more of this work is to reveal some of the life-changing incidents and labyrinthine relationships that characterize life in the convent.  Karnezis writing is deft in that he manages to reveal the deeper instincts, nature and motives of all the characters without satirizing or condemning them.  The characters turn out to harbor – as do we all – many secrets and soul aches.  They are real, raw and struggling to be faithful.

This work can be read for many reasons; enjoyment, insights into the human condition, humor and descriptions of the odd workings of sin and God’s grace.  This author has already been short-listed with another novel for the Whitbread First Novel Award.  His writing is beguiling and intriguing and invites the reader’s full attention.