The Convent

The Convent

3.2 7
by Panos Karnezis

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"An impressive addition to the works of a master storyteller."—The Independent
The crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy stands alone in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra, hidden on a hill among dense forest. Its inhabitants are devoted to God, to solitude and silence—six women cut off from a world they've chosen to leave behind. This all

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"An impressive addition to the works of a master storyteller."—The Independent
The crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy stands alone in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra, hidden on a hill among dense forest. Its inhabitants are devoted to God, to solitude and silence—six women cut off from a world they've chosen to leave behind. This all changes on the day that Mother Superior Maria Ines discovers a suitcase punctured with air holes at the entrance to the retreat: a baby, abandoned to its fate. Is it a miracle? Soon she will find that the baby's arrival has consequences beyond her imagining, and that even in her carefully protected sanctuary she is unable to keep the world, or her past, at bay.
In this beautifully told novel, "we witness justice and injustice, theological controversy, the politics of a tiny enclosed society, despair, cruelty, generosity, scandal, suspicion and suicide, all told with immense verve and skill" (London Sunday Times).

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.”
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Anna Mundow

A convent in rural Spain around the year 1921 seems, at first glance, to be an unlikely setting for a psychological thriller, but Panos Karnezis's new novel, The Convent, finds hypnotic appeal in just such a place. "Time and damp had scarred the saints in the niches beyond recognition," Karnezis writes of the isolated convent of Our Lady of Mercy, "the worn flagstones shone from thousands of feet having trodden on them over the centuries; the wooden staircases groaned…." Here the statue of a crucified Jesus "[after] four centuries in the damp air of the convent… had turned a dull, almost black colour." Five nuns remain, "…the last survivors of an age that was coming to its end," their only visitor a cleric who arrives periodically to say Mass and to hear confessions.

The world of the sisters exudes peaceful decay. Yet the first scene is one of shocking disruption. On the convent steps, a young novice finds a suitcase that contains a living baby. Assessing the infant, the Mother Superior, Sister Maria Ines, betrays little emotion. This does not surprise us; Karnezis has already distilled her nature in a few sentences. "Sometimes she wished that she were with the Carthusians so that she would not have to speak…she still believed that humankind had been given perhaps more intelligence than was necessary."

Nevertheless, within hours Sister Maria Ines declares that God has sent her this baby to be raised among the nuns. There are mutinous rumblings, particularly from spiteful Sister Ana, at this spasm of apparent religious lunacy, and an atmosphere of inchoate menace thickens. At the same time, Karnezis cunningly exposes the human drama underlying the mystery. The diocese's worldly Bishop may observe that "…miracles happen very rarely but babies are being abandoned all the time." The truth, however, is more subtle and more complicated. It leads us into the past, first to a crisis in Sister Maria Ines's youth -- one that in its perfect desolation could stand alone as a short story -- and into the more recent history of a young nun and of the Bishop himself.

Each layer of these individual dramas is revealed with delicate economy as the novel's quiet mesmerizing power intensifies. In scenes at times reminiscent of J. G. Farrell's masterpiece The Siege of Krishnapur, Karnezis mingles the immediate and the mystical. "The Mother Superior took her for long walks in the orchard," he writes of the young novice, "and they discussed the creation of the world, how many nails were used to crucify Christ and other important doctrinal matters…." A few pages later, we observe the Mother Superior's pre-dawn routine when "…she would unlock the door of the chapel, light the oil lamps…. inspect the traps baited with chocolate and throw away the dead rats…." And we contemplate Bishop Estrada, a superb creation, as he walks in his palace gardens where "[the] skirt of his cassock was constantly caught in the thorns of rose bushes, leaving behind a trail of perfumed red petals which hours later his deacon had only to follow to find him…."

In his astonishing first novel, The Maze, Karnezis brought us inside the minds of doomed Greek soldiers lost in the Anatolian desert in 1922. In The Convent he has created a smaller, but not lesser hallucination.

--Anna Mundow

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Convent 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Elizabeth Yaccarino More than 1 year ago
A very good read. I was not expecting the ending to turn out as it did. The only dissapointment is the end left you wishing fir more. At only 180 pages I guess you can't expect too much.
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