Obedienceby Jacqueline Yallop
Set in contemporary and World War II France, this is the story of Sister Bernard: her forbidden love, her uncertain faith, and her guilt- ridden past.
A once -bustling convent in the South of France is closing, leaving behind three elderly nuns. Forced, for the first time, to confront the community that she betrayed decades ago, Sister Bernard relives her
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Set in contemporary and World War II France, this is the story of Sister Bernard: her forbidden love, her uncertain faith, and her guilt- ridden past.
A once -bustling convent in the South of France is closing, leaving behind three elderly nuns. Forced, for the first time, to confront the community that she betrayed decades ago, Sister Bernard relives her life during the war.
At thirty, Sister Bernard can hear the voice of God-strident, furious, and personal. When a young Nazi soldier, a member of the German occupying forces, asks her to meet him in the church in secret one evening, she agrees. And so begins the horrifying and passionate love affair that will deafen the heavens and define her life, tempting her into duplicity. Obedience is a powerful exploration of one woman's struggle to reconcile her aching need to be loved with her fear of God's wrath.
“Is utterly compelling to the very end.”
—Midwest Book Review
“Williams matches the languid pace with a soft and precise reading infused with a delicate yet harrowing intensity. . . . A mesmerizing audio, a testament to the disturbing power of the story.”
—New Zealand Herald
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By Jacqueline Yallop
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2011 Jacqueline Yallop
All rights reserved.
Mother Catherine knew the devil. He was twisted and dwarfish; his clawed hands were gnarled. His neck was short and his legs bowed. He had a hump on his back, heavy like a sack of walnuts. He was crafty, she knew that; she had heard how cunning he could be. But surely he could never stretch over five shelves of jars, pickles and conserves to take down the coffee and tempt her nuns?
Sister Bernard, too, was a little under five foot tall, and of limited reach. She had to ask for help to take the packet down from its place at the top of the pantry, and this is how she met the young soldier. He stretched over her. She noticed how thin he was. As he reached up, his uniform jacket swung away from his shoulders, too large and loose for his frame, making him gawky, cartoonish. He smelt of damp cloth. He brushed the packet quickly with his open hand, in case there was dust perhaps, and he gave the coffee to Sister Bernard without looking at her. Then he went back to join the other soldiers bent over the refectory table and she listened to their guttural chatter as she litthe stove. She understood nothing. The smell of the coffee made her hungry and light-headed.
Looking out through the small window above the sink there was just the sweep of the convent drive and the village clustered beyond, cramped and low, the moss thick on the heavy stone roof tiles. The wash house, the well and the water fountain huddled together in the dip of land by the stream; the church tower stood high to one side, its spire uncertainly modelled against the trees, and the square in front of it hidden from Sister Bernard's view. Smoke rose in the cluster of stores and farm buildings packed in by the bakers, hanging in the airless day, misting the street. A dog ran. Women bent low over buckets and baskets, the ridged earth encircling them, their hats pale. On the slope that rose behind the houses, the new leaves of the vines shone and the gnarled old stems greened with the promise of early summer.
Sister Bernard hardly saw it. It was too ordinary, the way it had always been. She could not see that the occupation had made much difference. For the few weeks the German soldiers had been there, the days had passed unremarkably. The women and the old men seemed to be getting everything done. There was a silence settling, an unstirring quiet that perhaps stretched across the whole of this part of France, creasing up against the mountains to the south and north, and unfolding over the flat land on either side. But Bernard hardly noticed this, and God did not mention it.
She stirred the coffee in the pan, watching its thickness bubble. It had been many months since she had tasted coffee; it might have been years, she could not remember. This same packet had been stored on the top shelf of the pantry since long before the previous winter, she was sure of that at least. There was the rationing brought about somehow by the war, which had reached them finally, stripping the shelves at the alimentation in the village. And there was Mother Catherine's unshakeable belief that coffee was a temptation from the devil. Both of these things had kept it from her, and she had not once thought of the pleasure of it until now.
Sister Bernard carefully folded the packet again, slipping a pin through to hold the loose paper. Then she dipped her finger very slowly into the pan, feeling the warmth of the steam on her hand and letting her finger linger in the coffee until she could not bear it any longer. When she put it to her mouth, she closed her eyes and felt a drip slide down her chin. It was the coolness of her lips she tasted, more than anything.
It was a surprise when one of the Germans spoke, in French, so that Bernard could understand him. She opened her eyes with a start and popped her finger from her closed lips. She could not think what he might want. Even at thirty, in her prime, she was not beautiful. Her hair was already thin and her skin faded, her hands were wretched. No one spoke to her much, except God.
'Come in, Sister, we will not disturb you,' said the German.
Bernard half-turned from the brewing coffee, beginning to smile. She twisted her wet finger in the folds of her habit and she tried to quieten the monotone rumble of God preaching in her head. She stepped through the doorway to the refectory where the soldiers were waiting. It was like somewhere new, the sun coming in through the long windows and the table shrunk by the bulk of the men, their uniforms somehow exotic and the temptation still tingling on her tongue. Bernard gulped down a stuttered breath.
But he had not been speaking to her. They were all looking towards the back door, where Sister Jean had paused at the sight of them, unsure.
'Entrez, entrez,' he said again, his accent sharp.
'I have come for the pig scraps, monsieur,' she said, blinking at the unfamiliar need to explain her routine.
He got up and went to the door, pulling it more fully open and standing to one side, his arm outstretched into the refectory, inviting in the nun. He bowed, low and loose, grinning. One or two of the other soldiers applauded. Still Sister Jean stood outside.
'Come on then, come on,' he said again.
Sister Jean did not move. The German looked at her for a moment, no longer smiling, and shook his head. He stepped towards her and pulled at her arm, yanking her across the threshold. She stumbled. He slammed the door behind her and brushed his hands together, ignoring her now as he went back to his place at the table. Sister Jean winced, the idea of pain keeping her bent over for a moment. And then she passed through to the kitchen, her steps hurried and her eyes fixed on the floor, the empty sack slumped behind her like old skin. The soldier whistled quietly and somebody laughed.
'What are they doing?' Sister Jean stood close to Bernard and piled the leftovers from the bucket into the sack. It swelled on the floor between them. She watched exactly what she was doing, did not even glance at the men.
'They're having coffee, Sister. They're waiting for someone who is with Mother Catherine; it's their commandant, I think.' Bernard was embarrassed by the hiss of Jean's question. 'They've been very quiet – they've been no trouble.'
Sister Jean pulled tight the neck of the sack and kicked the bucket back towards the sink. It was noisy on the stone floor.
'They're drawing straws.'
Bernard could not see how she had known this. There was hardly a movement between the soldiers.
'Pigs,' spat Sister Jean, dragging the sack out into the refectory again. The men did not stir this time as she passed.
Bernard took the pan from the heat. The handle was insecure and her hand unsteady, and she walked slowly with it far in front of her as she took the coffee to them. Two of the soldiers parted, pushing back so that she could fill their glasses, and Bernard held the pan high over the table between them before pouring a measure evenly into each glass. She did not spill anything. Some of them thanked her, and though her hand trembled, God was silent.
Later, when the Germans were preparing to leave, the soldier who had helped Bernard with the coffee brought his empty glass to the sink where she was scraping carrots. He stood for a moment at her side, and she paused in her work. She turned towards him; she saw how young he was, perhaps only twenty, and she saw the perfect blueness of his eyes, an intimation of divinity. Smiling, he pulled her veil back from her face, as though to take a better look, and then he leant towards her and whispered something softly in her ear in German. She did not understand what he said, but she blushed anyway, surprised at the intimacy of the coffee on his breath. As he left her, he tossed away the short end of matchstick; one of the other soldiers nudged him.
Smoke hung low from the house fires and the air was thick. The shutters were closed tightly, blinding the rough walls, the warm ochre of the stone faded in the grey light. The clumps of iris pressing against the buildings and along the edges of the street seemed pallid, their reds and purples already exhausted. The shuffle of the village could have been silence, and when the two German soldiers passed the wash house their shoes clicked incongruously on the cobbles, the abrupt echoes spiking the quiet. The nuns were folding heavy wet cloths into baskets; they did not look up. Bernard was rinsing down the long rows of stone basins, each one split open like a giant missal so that the linen could be scrubbed against its sloping surfaces. Unthinking, she watched the dribble of sudded water disappear into the unmoving depths of the central wash pond, and she heard the tap of the soldiers' footsteps as a counterpoint to the grumble of God. She lifted her head, the heavy bucket hanging still for a moment, as she watched the Germans go round the corner towards the church.
Her soldier followed, alone. He paused in front of the wash house, stepping carefully to one side to avoid the puddle of spilt water leaking away towards the stream. He wished the nuns good morning, his French careful and studded with accent. One of the sisters with the basket of washing, a pretty young girl, returned his greeting, half under her breath, dropping her eyes. The soldier looked at the nuns in turn, as though weighing something up. He came to Bernard last. She was half-hidden in the gloom of the interior, the slouch of her habit making her shape indistinct. She met his gaze for a moment, the water dripping fast onto the dark fabric. She saw him clearly, even in that instant, the slightness of him soft in the smoky damp, his hands held tight in front of him, his face already anciently known to her. She looked at the way he stood, at the defeated slump of his shoulders, and she knew she had been chosen for something.
For the rest of the day and into the night Sister Bernard thought about what this might be. She went through events, tremulous and expectant, ignoring as best she could the incessant complaints that God hammered into her head. She recalled everything about the soldier; she went over and over his incomprehensible code of broken-nailed hand signals and half-obscured facial gestures. The thought of him was irresistible, a mystery. It made her feel beautiful. And, while it lasted, it gave her a glimpse of paradise.
The following morning, weary, Bernard sat for a moment on the flat wall that ran out to the henhouse. The sun was low behind the convent, trapping her in shadow. She dipped her head into her hands, and her veil fell thickly about her. She sat very still, doing nothing. God railed.
Since she was a girl, for every waking minute of every day and throughout her dreams, Sister Bernard had been pestered by the voice of God. He commented on everything she did, from the most intimate of habits to the most routine of chores. He was often taxing and abusive, always uncompromising. He disliked sloppiness, and was particular about clean shoes, stockings without holes, and the quantity of toothpaste squeezed onto the brush. His vengeance was swift and loud and stupefying. In the terror of it, her head would fill with the roar of Him until her eyes smarted. Only many hours later would a note of birdsong or the purr of a car engine creep back to her, wary. She could never hear her own voice above the din.
There was no sign that she had heard. The other nun leant forwards and gently touched the sway of her veil.
Bernard lifted her head this time, blinking. She was surprised that the soldier was not there. She was not sure where she was. All she could be sure of was the smell of cut grass and frying garlic, and she put her hand to her mouth.
'Are you quite well?' The other nun leant forwards, her words slow. 'The girl is here – Severine.'
The woman was of Bernard's age. She held a bundle of baby and stared at Bernard from behind the other nun, her face stupid and blank. Bernard concentrated for a moment on the rise and fall of her nausea; she stood, shaking herself.
'Yes. Thank you,' she said, frowning at the way things were settling back to normal.
'I'll leave you then, shall I? For a moment.' The nun smiled. 'I'll leave you,' she said again.
It was against the rules. Given over to God, the nuns were supposed to have forgotten their families and their friends in the greater vocation of religious life. Earthly ties should have been broken. But there had been no way of keeping Severine from Bernard. She had come silently and irregularly, waiting for long hours on the convent steps or by the kitchen door. They had tried explaining things to her, or shouting; they had shooed her away with the stray cats and once Mother Catherine had brought a great flat dish of holy water to fling at her, an exorcism. But she had always come back, waiting for Bernard without a sound.
Bernard went slowly to Severine and kissed her in greeting, stepping beyond the shadow to where the grass lay in the sun.
Severine looked long at the nun, expressionless. Then she held out her hand and Bernard took it. They went together up along the wall. Swallows looped out of the open-sided barn, cutting across the dark beams where the last trusses of onions were hung. A pair of fat ducks limped into the shade of the spreading fig tree. Where the path narrowed, the two women dropped hands, waddling instead in single file, their clogs clicking out of time as they slowly followed the track past the pigsties to the far vegetable garden. Lines of sticks cast criss-cross patterns on the flat earth. Shoots pressed upwards in exact rows. God's complaints were muted here, unalarming.
They looked down at the baby. Its head was small and its skin yellow, the lines around its mouth unfinished. It did not open its eyes.
'I have brought you something, Sister,' Severine said quietly, her words careful. She shifted the baby onto one arm and reached into a pocket. When she held it out to Bernard her face was too expectant. 'I saved it for you, this time.'
It was the baby's umbilical cord, shrivelled now and dried out, twisted and brown, like a shaving of something.
'For luck,' she said, shifting the weight of the baby again. Bernard took the cord carefully and turned it over in her hand.
'It's kind,' she said.
The baby stirred. Bernard watched as Severine pushed her finger at its mouth, quietening it. But when Severine began a moment later to unbutton the front of her blouse, Bernard turned away. She did not see the baby pushed against her friend's breast, its mouth slack on the red nipple. She looked out instead to where the white cattle were grazing, and she put the present into her pocket, letting it fall deep inside, feeling it, a talisman.
'You're well?' Bernard asked, still turned away. 'You're all well?'
There was no reply for a long while.
'Oh, he won't ...' Severine said at last. 'He never,' she added, defeated.
Bernard heard the rustle of clothing. She turned back; the baby was lying flat again across Severine's arms.
'Busy – busy at the farm.' Severine looked hard at her baby, pulling it close. In the brightening light, Bernard noticed new patterns of lines creased into her friend's face, the girl she had always known disappearing. 'Couldn't come here, with it all. When there's no men. Couldn't come.'
'It doesn't matter,' Bernard said.
Bernard thought about the soldier. 'Have you seen the Germans?'
'Have they come to the farm?'
'No – not yet. It's too far. Too dirty.' Severine grinned. 'Don't like the mud, do they? It keeps them away. Lets us get on with things, doesn't it?'
She seemed to want a particular kind of answer.
Bernard shrugged. 'They come here sometimes,' she said. 'They come to the convent.'
She wanted to say more; she thought she could find a way of describing her soldier. But Severine stepped across and put her hand firmly on Bernard's arm.
'I see you in church,' she said. 'On Sundays. Every Sunday. I wait for it.'
This did not seem new. Bernard hardly noticed what her friend had said; she did not see the way Severine's gaze seemed fixed on her, pleading.
Excerpted from Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop. Copyright © 2011 Jacqueline Yallop. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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—Hilary Mantel, Man Booker Prizewinning author of Wolf Hall
Meet the Author
JACQUELINE YALLOP, is the author of Kissing Alice, shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize. Obedience is her American debut. Formerly curator of the John Ruskin Museum in Sheffield, England, she now lives in the south of France.
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"Obedience" finds us at a convent in the South of France which is now on the verge of closing soon after it's bustling hayday. Three nuns are still in residence: Sister Marie, Sister Therese and Sister Bernard. The three are making preparations to leave to go to other facilities: Sister Marie to a nursing home, Sister Therese to live with a friend, and Sister Bernard to Les Cedres, a home for the elderly. During these preparations to leave, Sister Bernard is reminded of her past. When Sister Bernard was 30, she always heard God talking to her upclose and personal. But during wartime, she meets a Nazi soldier who entices her to meet him where she commits an act of betrayal to the Church and God. Craving love, she has a sordid affair with this soldier which brings on terrible percussions. When a time comes that her soldier does not show up for her any longer, she becomes distraught. According to the Rev. Mother, she needs to confess her sins to the priest at the church and do her penance. She no longer can hear God speak to her and that really bothers her a lot. Now, after the 2 other nuns have gone to their new "homes", Sister Bernard accepts the fact that she also will need to go to the place where she is expected. Years ago, she had born a son and he was taken and given to a good home. She also finds that she has a granddaughter. She has so much to reconcile with God about. It is a novel that does not give answers about good and evil, innocence, guilt, loneliness or obedience.