I know several of you have read and reviewed The Nun by Simonetta Agnello Hornby; in fact, that's one reason I chose it as my 4th Europa Edition of the year. Below is my review, adapted from my blog about what I'm reading, bookconscious. Check out the rest of what I read in April there.
The Nun addresses the importance of faith and literature in the heroine’s life. When the book opens, Agata is a young teen in Messina, a town at the tip of Sicily nearest mainland Italy’s toe. It’s 1839, and Europe is rumbling with what will become the revolutionary fevor that swept the continent a decade later. Agata’s fever is more localized — she’s in love with a neighbor.
As a young woman from a “good” family met with hard times, her life is completely out of her hands however. Her father dies and her mother takes the family to Naples to try to use her connections to keep her family afloat. The passage is significant as Agata meets an English Navy officer, James Garson.
One of her mother’s machinations is to offer Agata to a convent. The unwilling young woman is isolated from her relatives and the temptations of the world as her mother wrangles a position. Hornby paints an unflattering but very detailed view of the Church in nineteenth century Italy; corruption is rampant, positions are bought and sold, political influence trumps religious fervor.
Hornby fills her descriptions with words and images I found very evocative: a Japanese camellia, Oki no Nami, in the convent garden; paperoles, small, elaborate devotional images made of paper, bits of glass, and other decorative elements; incredible pastries baked as favors, treats, and for sale (each convent has a specialty); hebdomedary, the weekly cycle of tasks in the convent; cenoby, the establishment of a religious community; vespertine, of the evening.
Agata undergoes cycles of resignation and rebellion in the convent. She tries to bury herself in the order of convent life: prayer, work, service, devotion. She learns to bake and to tend the gardens, becomes a skilled herbalist, and tries hard to find her vocation. Meanwhile the world spins on outside the cloistered walls, and when she can receive mail, she begins corresponding with James Garson, who sends her novels (she reads Jane Austen, which I found very poignant, given her dashed hopes for marriage).
In the end, after more introspection and self-examination than most people undergo in a lifetime, Agata has had enough. She realizes she belongs in the world, not the convent, which can’t offer the spiritual solace and purity she hoped to take refuge in when first consigned there. She unravels her mother’s maneuverings and sees her earlier love and even her sisters as they really are. Eventually, she also realizes that James Garson can offer her love based not in fantasy but real emotional and intellectual understanding.
I won’t tell you what she does or whether she realizes her hopes, but I will say that if you like historical fiction, The Nun brings nineteenth century Italy to life. Agata is a complicated, passionate, and interesting heroine. I’d like to go back and re-read the novels James Garson sends her.
For now, I have Jane Gardam's The Queen of the Tambourine on tap for May, and I've promised myself a copy of her newest Europa Edition, Crusoe's Daughter, if I can polish off my "to-read" piles this summer. There are a LOT of books in my piles, though.