by Rumer Godden
"I took Vivi home." Why? Lise had asked herself a thousand times. "There's a little church in England," she told Soeur Marie Alcide, "at Southleigh in Oxfordshire, which has an old, old mural painting showing a winged Saint Michael holding the scales of justice. The poor soul awaiting judgment is quailing because the right-hand scale is coming heavily down with its load of sins: but on the left our Lady is quietly putting her rosary beads in the other scale to make them even. I saw it long ago, but in a way I suppose something like that happened to me.This is an inspiring tale of conversion and redemption told in flashback sequence. We meet Lise when she is being released from prison where she has served her term for murder. She is going to join an order that ministers to those on the fringes of society. Through Lise's thoughts, we watch her go from being a young WWII staffer in Paris, become seduced by a man who has a brothel and eventually turns her into a prostitute where later on she becomes the manager. The reasons behind the murder become clear as the threads come together again in the people around Lise in current time.
"It happened to me," and Lise started to tremble. "How did Vivi come to have those beads?" Lise asked that for the thousandth time. "She wouldn't say. She never said ..."
Now, in the cafe, Lise seemed to hear Soeur Marie Alcide's firm voice. "Put it behind you. That is one of our first rules. You will probably never see Vivi again." and, "It's time you caught your train," Lise told Lise.
The first third of the book can be tough to read as Godden is devastatingly emotionally honest as always. Despite the fact that much of the book takes place in a brothel the words used are unobjectionable so one needn't worry about that. As I read, I suddenly realize that I must have tried this book at least once before but always stopped as it was too painful. However, I was selling the book short by never pressing on as the last two-thirds took an upward swing that surprised and enchanted me.
Throughout it is strung the rosary, sometimes in surprising ways and always as a pointer toward action to be taken. Interestingly, Lise doesn't even enjoy saying the rosary but it is somehow integral to her journey of faith despite that. She cannot seem to escape it no matter how she might try.
I didn't realize how integral the rosary was to the book until I was very far into it. After I finished the book and thought about it over the next few days, I wondered about the title. What did it mean? Suddenly it came to me. Five [mysteries] for sorrow, ten [mysteries] for joy. It reflects the rosary itself. Reading the book with that foreknowledge might yield even more riches. I will have the opportunity to find out as I definitely will return to this book.
It was a revelation to the aspirants that the sisters, some of them elderly impressive nuns, filled with quiet holiness, should publicly admit their faults. Could Soeur Imelda de Notre Dame, that calm saintly person, really have snapped sharply at anyone? Could Soeur Marie Dominique have lost her temper? "Then do you go on being you until the very end?" they could have moaned. "Even after all this trying and training?" "Always," Soeur Theodore would have told them. ...