Written in another style, this book could be terrifying. Kathryn Hulme offers us visions of the ultimate in conformity, silent figures in black and white bound to the strictest obedience of the slightest detail, including thought itself. The main witness seeing not even a hint of emotion as a dead nun she just found with a knife in her back is carried off like an object no longer needed. She knows they care, but any display of such besides a few carefully chosen words uttered discreetly don’t seem to belong in this 1984-ish world. Indeed, the nuns seem to function on telepathy, and there are no secrets here. And this is her struggle, to live “a life against nature,” “all for Jesus.”
But as it is written, this story based on true events about the lives of nuns and the trials of Sister Luke is for the most part eerily peaceful, as it has a way of dropping you gently right into the middle of her world. Even the vagueness of time is presented here, as nearly every day in her memory passes indistinguishable from the last. As an outsider the answers to many of the questions and difficulties she faces may seem obvious, and you want to reach through the pages to shake her, and ask, “Why the hell is it like this? How is this good for anybody?” But as this book spends so little time explaining every little detail, and really shows it to you instead, you understand. You feel for her, alien as her life may be. You know what it’s like to try so hard to be perfect, but constantly question yourself and find yourself wanting. And this is ultimately what draws you in and makes you accept it.
The nuns seem to live as though they’re hypnotized. Detachment from the outside world is considered essential. Even their age and gender cease to matter, in certain key ways. Only The Rule matters. Those who evolve into Living Rules are the ultimate aspirational figures. But this would be a struggle for the strongest of people with the strongest of faith. For Sister Luke doubt is her only real companion, and it’s constant, even as she grows in her spiritual wisdom. Even when everyone else believes in her and she accomplishes her goal of working in the Congo missions, doubt continues to haunt her, as much as her memories of growing up with her doctor father. The hardest part is that for her the separation of herself from the outside world must be largely symbolic. Sister Luke follows in her father’s footsteps in the medical field, and thus is thrust into it through the care she must take of ordinary people. People of every kind.
This intersection of worlds is where the story climaxes. Because in the outside world, violence is a reality. And so is war. But in the nun’s world, unconditional forgiveness is too. God commands his followers to love their enemies. There is no excuse for not obeying The Rule. The ultimate battle of Sister Luke revolves around whether or not she is capable of this, whether or not she really does belong in a convent living the life of a nun. As the years pass, she begins to feel more and more like a fraud.
Arguably, you could say that she begins to wake up from the hypnotism that never fully had her in its grasp. Unshakable hate for the Nazi enemy, and a sense of duty to her country of Belgium takes over. The ideology that it’s up to God alone to judge people for their sins is in itself admirable. But it raises the question of where to draw the line. How brutally wrong does someone have to be before we step up and take action for ourselves? Whether or not Sister Luke is able to accept all the death and destruction around her, whether she can uphold her vows or will instead seek a divorce from God is up to the reader to find out. And as you do, you might find yourself wondering what you would do in the same situation, not as an outsider, but as someone dedicated to the religious life as she is. Poetic to the end, this book compels you to examine the state of your own soul.
Other recommended reads: Black Like Me