Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Convent

Flower. Flower. Flower.

Convents, like colleges and country estates are perfect microcosms to play out Big Ideas in novels. Authors can full these snow globes up with characters and unleash the drama without a lot of real world constraints. These are controlled, understandable environments that are always knocked for a loop by the arrival of an outsider. We all bring a common knowledge of their workings so readers go in understanding that the outsider will threaten the status quo and in general bring out the best and worst in people. In The Convent by Panos Karnezis it is a baby left on the convent doorstep that is the catalyst for change.

Our Lady of Mercy is a crumbling convent hidden away in rural 1920's Spain. It's a six person land that time forgot. Mercy is a close-knit, self sufficient community. Sister Maria Ines is the Mother Superior. When a novice finds an abandoned baby outside of the convent Sister Maria is determined to keep the child. In that baby she sees a sign of forgiveness from God for her sins of long ago. Is this a miracle? Is it an offer of temptation? Her desire/vision is not shared by everyone else at the convent. It isn't long before the interloper has divided the Sisters.

Karnezis tells the story of the Sisters in a straightforward style. The old deceptively simple straightforward style in beautiful language. As the left behind worldly emotions of these women intrude on their cloistered lives and the unraveling begins, Karnezis creates a fascinating and moody page turner. There are some details left unexamined, the baby's mother for instance, that keep The Convent from being the novel it could be but on the whole I was impressed. Karnezis is a strong storyteller who is adept at masking the heroes and villains and keeping the reader engaged.

P.S. I like the cover of the American edition. It captures the location of the novel and informs us that there is someone there who doesn't belong. The image is neutral enough though that you don't immediatley know if the baby will bring good or bad. 
What do you think of the Canadian cover? It too is a lovely image but to me this cover says that The Convent takes place in a far different time period that it really does. Doesn't this look like a historical novel that will take place 200 or 300 years ago? Despite the bridge to a walled away building this doesn't say isolation to me either. It reads more like a Medieval town.
How about the U.K. covers? These are the hardcover and paperback editions. Both wildly miss the mark. The hardcover image is unreadable to me and not in a good way. It's a mish mash of shapes and colors that hold no interest. The paperback creates a mood of evil yet to come but in a Stephen King way which is not this novel.

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