- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Set against the backdrop of the impending Vatican II decisions that wreaked havoc on many Catholic lives and the sprawl of the more permissive 1960s, this crackling, smart, and thoughtful novel is sure to delight.
Nothing ever happened in Chatterton, New Zealand, in the late 1960s—at least so Theresa and Catherine Flynn believed before they spotted the Virgin Mary hovering above their backyard lemon tree. Weary veterans of endless rounds of the game "Martyrs and Suffering Virgins," in which players eagerly reenact the whipping and torturing of their favorite female saints, the prepubescent sisters still find themselves unprepared for the sight of the Virgin herself. All Mary wants them to do, it turns out, is deliver a sealed, handwritten message to the Pope. Awestruck, the two obediently pass the Virgin's letter on to their mother—who promptly turns it over to her sternly devout husband—who self- righteously opens and reads it before passing it on to the local priest. Disagreeing with the letter's content (the Virgin wants the Pope to acknowledge the importance of contraception), Terrence Flynn alters the message to conform with his own and the Church's misogynistic doctrines. The result, as this wacky family history would have it, is Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae forbidding the use of the Pill—an edict that forces Mary to reappear on Earth (with the girls as her witness) to initiate a movement intent on helping women control their own procreative destinies. Meanwhile, Theresa and Catherine go about their own very mortal lives—experimenting with sex, falling in love with a long-haired cousin, a doctor's son, a best girlfriend, and whatever other target wanders into their paths—while struggling to "be good," whatever that means, in the face of their father's violent temper, their mother's depression, the local monsignor's failure to guide them, and the utter chaos of life in a houseful of Flynns.
An offbeat, surprisingly entertaining look at Catholic girlhood, by a writer with a predator's eye for comic detail.
From Chapter One
Other children played 'Mothers and Fathers', 'Cowboys and Indians', or 'Cops and Robbers'. Catherine and Theresa Flynn played 'Martyrs and Suffering Virgins'. After school they changed out of their black serge gym frocks and slipped into their saintly roles as Maria, Rose, Anastasia, Agatha, Agnes, Joan, Lucy or Barbara.
All their heroes were women and most of them had died horribly — their deaths caused, naturally, by men.
'So what's new?' Smoking Nana shrugged her shoulders. Grace Malone was a barrel-shaped woman in her mid-fifties. Her faded green cotton gingham shirt strained at her midriff and creased into sausages of fat when she sat. Over the dress she wore a rust-coloured home-knitted cardigan, the buttons of which were made from deer antler. Her hair was a bird's nest of spidery tufts gathered into an untidy bun at the nape of her neck.
Her son-in-law Terrence observed her sourly from the opposite end of the green Formica table. Grace held court while his children hung onto her every word as if it were manna from heaven. He might as well have been invisible for all the attention they paid him when she visited. She was enough to put anyone sensitive off their food.
'Men can't control themselves,' Smoking Nana told her granddaughters and she spread her buttocks out more comfortably on the vinyl chair.
They nodded in response, their eyes big with admiration and curiosity.
Terrence Flynn bit his tongue. He gave a little yelp of pain, but no-one heard him.
'They've just got to prove to everyone that they're in charge.'
'Am I bleeding?' Mr Flynn asked his wife.
'Even if they have to kill women to make the point.'
'I can't see anything.' Mrs Flynn squinted as she peered in. There were three teeth missing on both sides of his lower jaw. It was not a pretty sight.
'Don't get married, girls.'
'There's no blood? I don't believe it.'
'None, I'm afraid.'
'You'll only regret it if you marry. Go out and become brain surgeons or explorers instead.'
There was glory in dying the noble death of a martyr. It was a Test of Faith, the nuns said.
'The martyrs were Saved,' said Sister Mary Cecilia. 'They live now with God in heaven like one big happy family. Your heavenly family, who watch over you.'
'I don't want anyone watching over me, I want to be private and think my own thoughts,' argued Theresa. She wanted to be like Smoking Nana.
'Not a sparrow falls, but...' replied her teacher.
St Agnes refused to worship at the altar of Minerva. She was punished by having her clothes removed in front of a crowd of spectators. She covered up her nakedness by letting down her long hair. Later she was stabbed in the throat. She was twelve years old.
Agnes was their favourite. In their Heroines of God book, dog-eared and worn from constant rereadings, St Agnes was depicted wearing a long ochre-coloured robe and carrying a sacrificial lamb in her arms. Her eyes were raised towards heaven. Her long wavy hair was haloed by soft yellow light. The wound on her white throat was clearly visible.
She was more beautiful than any fairytale princess and braver than Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Snow White, all of whom had waited for someone to save them. Agnes saved herself by choosing to be a martyr. She suffered excruciating pain.
Suffering counted. It guaranteed immediate entry to heaven without first having to endure the flames of Purgatory.
Copyright © 1996 by Sue Reidy
Sue Reidy was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, and attended a Catholic girls' school. She studied visual communications at Wellington Polytechnic School of Design, and has worked in the communications field full-time since graduating. In 1990 she formed her own design practice. She has gained recognition as a graphic designer, illustrator, writer and lecturer. In 1985 Sue Reidy won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award and in 1988 her short-story collection Modettes was published by Penguin Books. In 1989 she was elected to the National Council of PEN. In 1995 she was runner-up in the Sunday Star Times Short Story Award. Sue lives with her partner (a publisher) in Ponsonby, Auckland, surrounded by her paintings and artifacts, while a sub-tropical garden steadily encroaches on the house.