Brona over at This Reading Life is hosting a Rumer Godden Reading Week this month and I’m delighted that she is, as it pushed me to finally pick up Black Narcissus, which has been languishing on my shelves for many years.
Set in the early 20th century, Black Narcissus is about a group of five British nuns who are sent into the Himalayas to establish a school, hospital and convent –ironically, it will turn out, called Saint Faith’s – in an isolated, decrepit palace perched high on a cliff. The Mopu palace, gifted to them by the local General, was once his ancestor’s harem, or ‘House of Women’ but will now house women of a very different kind.
Despite the rather salubrious reputation of their setting, along with the fact that the monks who came before them only lasted six months on the same site the nuns are undeterred. However, Sister Clodagh, who is in charge of the group, has her own reservations and cannot shake the initial warning from the whiskey-swilling Mr Dean – the local agent of empire – who predicts that their mission will be a failure.
Sometimes it seemed to him that the house had a bad wild life of its own; the impression of its evil lingered, in its name, in its atmosphere.
Their work starts well. They set up a clinic and a school and start to plan the building of a chapel. The locals, who are initially paid to come to the school, begin to come of their own accord and the young Indian princeling General Dilip Rai (whose scent earns him the titular nickname ‘Black Narcissus’) attends private lessons.
However their nonchalant confidence in the inherent goodness of their work means that they fail to take on board the belief systems of the local people. Everyone they try to draw into their Christian sphere, from Mr Dean to Ayah the housekeeper or Kanchi, a beautiful young local, is always one step ahead than the nuns themselves.
Their ongoing exposure to the dramatic landscape and these differing attitudes of the locals begin to unhinge each of the nuns in different ways and the task they have set themselves becomes more and more arduous, even as they appear to be making progress.
Sister Philippa, whose job is to tend to the garden, becomes obsessed with planting and growth to the detriment of her other duties. Sister Honey becomes overly fond of the children in her charge, while Sister Clodagh finds herself obsessed with memories of Con, the man she had hoped to marry before she joined the convent. Most concerning, Sister Ruth, the most vulnerable of the group, is growing increasingly erratic and ill-tempered, driven as she is by a dangerous interest in the volatile Mr Dean.
“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.
As each of the nuns succumbs to their hidden passions and secular longings, they are distracted from their work but more importantly, from their faith. The palace and the Himalayan peak of Kanchenjunga become powerful forces, leading the nuns further and further from their original, honourable aims, which will ultimately lead to tragedy.
…sometimes there was that sense of emptiness that was almost frightening, as if the house had swallowed everyone; you could walk in it for minutes and meet nobody. It was as if it had swallowed them up, they are the restraints they had brought to it; they were gone under the old familiarity, their saints tossed down like beads, the bell on its thread of sound snapped off.
The story of Black Narcissus is a straightforward one, but the plot is focused and powerfully intense. Despite the gothic tropes that Godden employs in her narrative, she writes with a subtlety that only seems to strengthen its power. Place is of utmost importance to the novel, yet Godden writes with a striking lyrical restraint, allowing her setting to brim with potential while the orientalist and melodramatic elements – although present – are never overplayed. The book thrums with barely concealed passion, and despite building to a climax that involves sexual obsession, mental illness and tragic death, Rodden presents it all with a masterful sense of understatement.
Despite being rooted in a very particular time and place, Black Narcissus has a wonderfully dream-like quality that draws the reader in. Rodden deals well with the nature of colonialism and the inherent issues that it brings, but foremost in this striking novel, is the exploration of repressed emotions and how, in the right circumstances, everything submerged will come to the surface.
READ ON: KINDLE
NUMBER READ: 355
NUMBER REMAINING: 391
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!