‘Sister Bernard, you belong to God, to the convent. You love God. Him only. You are nothing. A simple foot soldier in the battle for righteousness — a… a… you do not even understand what is going on here. You are just stupid.’ Mother Catherine pulled herself tall, forcing her breath to come steadily. ‘There is God’s love, Sister, set aside for you. There is no other love — not for you.’
(from Obedience, page 159)
Obedience is the story of a French nun whose actions during World War II continue to haunt her. Jacqueline Yallop sets the novel both during the war and in the present, where three elderly nuns are being forced from the convent they have called home for several decades as it is being closed.
Sister Bernard, given the name of a male saint instead of the name she preferred, is 30 years old when the Nazi Occupation is underway. She is supposed to focus only on her faith and on her work at the convent, but she is intrigued by a young, lanky German soldier and begins an affair with him that consumes her every thought and gives her a hope that she never had before. Bernard and Schwanz meet secretly, but events conspire to ensure that the entire village knows Bernard’s sins — which go far beyond breaking her vow of chastity — and cause the already isolated nun to be shunned and ridiculed even decades later.
In the present, Bernard is 93 years old and forced to contend with her wartime actions. She had always heard what she believed to be the voice of God, a very angry and critical voice that never left her in peace, but one day, her head was quiet. Not only is Bernard left to consider the consequences of her sin, but she also must contend with what the absence of the voice in her head means to her faith. Meanwhile, Sister Thérèse is supposed to accompany Bernard to the diocesan rest home, and she must decide whether to continue to feel responsible for Bernard or whether to finally live for herself.
It’s hard for me to assemble my thoughts on this novel. I thought it was well written and interesting, but at first, I was a bit put off by the structure. The events that occurred in the past were revealed slowly, with longer parts taking place in the present that foreshadowed things that readers would learn when the narrative soon moved back into the past. It wasn’t that the events in the present weren’t interesting; I just didn’t want to have to wait for all the details to fall into place, as I questioned Bernard’s motives and wondered more about what kind of person she was.
I kept questioning Bernard’s state of mind and how someone so obedient and so faithful could suddenly embark on an affair. When the soldier approached her for sex, she simply agreed, which astonished me. I could see that each subsequent meeting meant more to Bernard, but I just couldn’t understand why the affair began in the first place. I kept hoping that something about Bernard’s life before the convent and why she became a nun would be revealed and lead me to understand how she so easily broke her vows, but that never happened. It’s possible that Bernard didn’t actually hear the voice of God but was mentally ill, and some of her decisions throughout the course of the novel leaned that way, but I wanted to be completely convinced of her reasoning.
Yet Obedience is a completely captivating novel. The narrative is both simple and beautiful, and Yallop certainly has created a complex character in Bernard. It would be so easy to point a finger at her for her actions and to think of her as an evil conspirator, but readers really get into Bernard’s head and see how tortured and conflicted she is, and then it’s not so easy to dislike her. I really wish Yallop would have given readers a glimpse of Bernard during the 30 years before she entered the convent. The ending was also a complicated affair for me in that I can see how the story could be finished, but I still felt there were some things left unresolved and didn’t want to have to fill in the blanks on my own. Even so, Obedience is a book I’m finding difficult to let go, and it was one that generated a lot of emotion while reading it. My husband could tell you about the countless times that I yelled out loud at the character in my effort to understand her, and several times the book nearly brought me to tears. That alone makes it worthwhile for me.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.