Cross an Almodóvar-esque plot with lean Hemingway prose, and you get the atmospheric latest from Karnezis (The Maze), about an infant boy abandoned on the steps of a convent. The boy is quickly adopted by the Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, who runs the convent with a blend of intense devotion and heterodoxy; she has a painful secret in her past and believes the boy is a sign of God's infinite mercy. Her intense desire to keep the child at the convent, rather than send him to an orphanage in town, increasingly pits her against the convent's other inhabitants, especially Sister Ana, an ambitious nun much aggrieved by perceived slights. When Ana finds a bloodstained cloth buried on the convent's grounds and becomes convinced "that the convent was visited by evil," she sets herself to expelling the devil, with grave consequences for all. The sense of slow-burning doom, rendered in deceptively simple prose, culminates in a series of startling revelations. Even when the disclosure strains credibility, the novel's concern with the claims the past makes on the present makes the emotional investment it asks for well worth it. (Nov.)
The New Yorker
“Karnezis slowly peels back the psychological layers while maintaining a sense of spiritual dread, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that the explanation for where the infant came from is the most earthly one possible.”
Sister Maria Inés is the mother superior of only six nuns who remain in the remote convent of Our Lady of Mercy, high in the mountains of Spain in the 1920s. One morning, a nun discovers a newborn baby left on the convent doorstep. Sister Maria Inés regards this as a miracle and as God's reward to her for spending decades atoning for a grievous sin in her youth. She intends to keep the infant and devotes herself completely to the child, though she soon comes into conflict with the bishop and some of the other nuns. The reader may readily figure out the baby's mysterious parentage, but the mother superior persists in her belief in the miraculous, setting the stage for tragedy. VERDICT Greek-born Karnezis, who now lives in London and whose The Maze was shortlisted for the Whitbread, has created a very readable and convincing tale of how years of living in near-isolation while brooding over past mistakes may lead to madness, especially in a sensitive soul in a repressed society.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Simply and beautifully written, this guileful little book from Greek author Karnezis (The Maze, 2004, etc.), now living in London, focuses on the mysterious (miraculous?) appearance of a newborn child on the steps of a convent in early 20th-century Spain.
The convent of Our Lady of Mercy is physically deteriorating and down to only six nuns when Sister Lucía discovers a baby boy left in a suitcase carefully ventilated with holes. She immediately takes the child to Sister María Inés, the mother superior of the convent, who faces a dilemma: While Christian love suggests that the child stay at the convent to be cared for, hardheaded pragmatism indicates that such a solution would be burdensome for the nuns. Sister María Inés is convinced that the child is a sign, and her private reading of the situation involves her own complex psychological and emotional life, for 30 years earlier she had been pregnant and had had an abortion. She joined the order in part driven by the guilt arising from this act, but now God seems to have seen fit to replace the child that she lost, so she reads the arrival of the child as a miracle, "a gift I do not deserve." Sister Ana, however, comes to the opposite conclusion, for she "had little doubt that recent events were the work of the Devil," especially since she found a bloodied sheet buried on the grounds of the convent, according to Sister Ana a sign of animal sacrifice. The Mother Superior becomes ever more emotionally attached to the child, fiercely so in fact. (At one point she poisons the convent dogs out of fear for safety of the child.) Sister Beatriz, a young and beautiful nun, also has a strong attachment to the child and becomes an ally of the Mother Superior's in her desire to keep it. Adjudicating all this in-fighting at the convent is Bishop Ezequiel Estrada, who must decide whether a more appropriate place for the child is a local orphanage.
A haunting and psychologically dense novel.