Black Narcissus

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: July 8, 1994
Number of Pages: 224
Print Price: $156.86
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Black Narcissus is the third novel and first best-seller by Rumer Godden, who later wrote such works as In This House of Brede and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Like the later novels, Black Narcissus is a story about nuns. The nuns in this novel, however, are Anglicans, not Catholics. Godden herself was an Anglican at the time she wrote it. Although it’s an enjoyable book, it does not rise to the heights of her great works.

The story begins with five nuns on the way to establish a new convent in the Himalayas in India. Sister Clodagh is the young, pretty, and sure-of-herself Mother Superior. This is her first attempt at heading up a convent. She is accompanied by Sister Ruth, a know-it-all with an odd streak who likes to push herself forward; Sister Blanche, nicknamed Sister Honey by her past students who loved her; Sister Philippa, the wise, quiet woman who will be their gardener; and dependable Sister Briony, old enough to remain unshaken by all the troubles that will swirl around them.

From the beginning, a sense of mystery surrounds the site of the new convent. Years ago, the General, an Indian native who was distantly related to the Governing House, had built “the palace” for his harem. Now his son was in charge. He wanted to make the abandoned building useful and do something useful for the people in the nearby village of Mopu. So, he had invited a group of religious brothers to open a boys’ school there.  The brothers had only lasted a few months. It was not clear what made them leave. Nor was it clear why a priest of her own order should warn Sister Clodagh to be careful. What was there to be afraid of? At any rate, Sister Clodagh is confident she can manage whatever comes along.

As the reader expects, trouble begins for the nuns almost at once.  Mr. Dean, an Englishman who is the General’s agent, spends much more time with the nuns than a single man should – especially one with a reputation for womanizing. But Sister Clodagh sees no way around it. The building needs thorough renovating. Mr. Dean oversees it. Workmen go in and out of the convent constantly. Mr. Dean is always careful in his relationship with the nuns, but is irreverent, blunt, and a hard drinker. For some reason, he reminds Sister Clodagh of the man she loved in her youth.

The nuns start a girls’ school. Then the General’s nephew and heir wants to learn from them as well. He is already a young man and not a suitable person to spend his days at the convent, especially with the provocative student Kanchi trying to get his attention constantly. But Sister Clodagh can’t think of a good excuse not to help him with his studies. She feels they owe a debt to the General. Dilip Rai, as the young man is called, not only dresses flamboyantly, he also wears a perfume called Black Narcissus. Sister Ruth takes to calling him Black Narcissus behind his back. It is not a compliment.

The thin mountain air sickens all the sisters shortly after their arrival. It also seems to upset their thinking. All their struggles to bury their pasts, fight temptation, and follow the rule of their order come to the surface. Their weaknesses are magnified. Some of these weaknesses threaten to completely sabotage their mission. Mr. Dean predicts the nuns will clear out before the spring rains come. Sister Clodagh is determined to prove him wrong.

Although the main characters in this novel are nuns, it is not as overtly religious in content as the reader might expect. We read of the Christmas liturgies and daily prayers, but not much about the nuns’ individual spiritual lives. God is rarely mentioned. In fact, the most religious character is the Sunnyasi, the Hindu Holy Man who sits under a tree in perpetual silence and solitude. More than once, Mr. Dean and others contrast the nuns’ effort to be useful to the people of Mopu with the detached, “useless” life of the Sunnyasi. This may partly reflect the state of Godden’s own spiritual life at the time she wrote the book.

Godden had not developed her distinctive style when she wrote Black Narcissus. It’s written as a conventional English novel of the late Empire. Her command of words is the same as in her later works, however. Take this passage, for example:

“It was a new habit of Sister Clodagh’s to come out after tea. That was the time, in these short evenings, that the sun went down, leaving the valley and the foothills first, drawing away from the hills higher and higher until only the sky was in the light. The light spread in ripples; they lapped the terrace while the tea and the bamboos were lost in the dusk and the buttresses had heavy shadows against the walls. The sun flashed on the corridor windows and dazzled her eyes as she looked at the people going down the steps…”

I found Sister Clodagh to be somewhat lacking as a heroine. Her aloofness carries over into her thoughts, so that even after reading about the broken heart that led her to become a nun, I didn’t sympathize with her as much as I think I was I meant to. Likewise, the story, although it comes to a dramatic climax, made no lasting impact on me. I did not wish to linger over the pages. I will probably never read it again.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel I understood Mr. Dean’s character, why the novel has the name it does, or what the root of the problem was for the religious who came to Mopu. I’m not sure what the contrast between the Sunnyasi and the nuns was supposed to mean. I never understood why Godden felt compelled to write this particular story. Perhaps these things are clearer to other readers, who might then enjoy the novel more.

All told, Black Narcissus is a good, but not compelling novel. There are hints of the writer’s future greatness, but this story falls short.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-0330324700
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.1 x 7.8 inches


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Connie Rossini’s spirituality column runs in The Prairie Catholic in New Ulm, Minnesota, where she currently lives with her husband and four sons. It is also carried by The Catholic Times of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. She has been writing both fiction and non-fiction from a young age. Connie has created a contemplative method for homeschooling her children, and blogs about faith-based education and Carmelite spirituality at http://contemplativehomeschool.wordpress.com.

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