IF you can get past Sweet Mercies' dull start, you are richly rewarded. This story of three nuns and the people in their lives makes you feel there's still hope for humanity.
We follow the shenanigans of sisters Bridget, Celia and Margaret. The nuns of St Philomena's Convent have been doing much better since they made their first appearance in Small Miracles. The monastery's B&B is doing well and is praised as “heaven-sent".
On an emotional level, however, the going is tough. Bridget, the charismatic head of the convent, is the target of two people's fury. Her younger sister Mary's anger explodes after the death of her husband. They were married for 50 years and the union was emotionally unfulfilling for Mary. She wanted to become an artist, not the wife of a successful builder. Mary's anger is not unfounded. She was Bridget's replacement. After receiving her calling as a nun, Bridget match-made Mary and Declan.
On a more mysterious note, Bridget is also confronted by the anger of a dying man's caregiver. Why is Peter hostile towards her? And why does he refuse to eat her delicious cakes? Bridget is going to have to work through a lot of issues before her interpersonal problems are resolved.
For me, the most fun characters in the book were the two baddies. The horrible Maura sees evil hiding behind every bush. It's her job to care for the chapel in which the statues of Joseph and Mary are kept. She loses her cool when she enters the chapel one day and sees a new statue towering over the old ones. She tries to move the statues around, in the process breaking off Joseph's head. Maura now has to pull some strings to stay out of trouble. She's a character who will remain in your mind, a villain who tries to be a heroine and fails miserably. Her victims include her children and a gay couple who are friends with the nuns, because she is homophobic.
The 90-year-old Cecilia is also a bully. She berates the receptionist of the monastery's B&B in an unchristian way. She tries her best not to fall in love with the convent kittens, which follow her everywhere. Cecilia may have a point. The sand in her hourglass is running out. She wants to focus on writing the history of the Roman Catholic church in the village but she also has to do the laundry of the convent and B&B. Where will she find time for kittens?
The type of conflict the reader encounters in Sweet Mercies is internal rather than visible. No shots ring out and no one kills anyone. However, people remain people and petty sins are committed, even by Bridget — she cheats during a bingo night and is caught out.
Booth relates that she was inspired by a radio programme about Irish men who went to England during the 1950s and worked as labourers in the building industry. They suffered asbestos poisoning, poverty and alcoholism. Booth's father was one of them, though she doesn't say what his outcome was.
The story of the labourers forms part of the dying JJ's story. He fell ill with asbestosis and took to drink.
The book is a rich tapestry with many threads and a chorus of characters. In the beginning, I hyperventilated when I had to get to know yet another character, because I prefer books with fewer characters and clearer storylines. This book's storyline resembles life. It unfolds, you have to follow, and sometimes it leads to unusual places. It reads misleadingly easily but the story builds until there is conflict and resolution.
Booth handles it in her idiosyncratic way. And she does something else: she celebrates the small moments of life, and that's why the reader is introduced to the entire backdrop of characters. Even the postman and his wife play a role.
Booth recounts that as a child she dreamed of becoming a minister. She obtained two master's degrees in writing as well as a diploma in pastoral theology. Google her and look at her photos. She is a woman with curly hair and a smile, with a shawl around her shoulders and a necklace that does nothing for her. She's real.
Small Mercies is a fun book with built-in optimism, and heaven knows that's something we need.
In my opinion, however, it will largely miss the mark in South Africa. It's too full of nuns, burning candles and forgiveness for our country right now. It's not the fault of the book, it's ours.
Who, what, where and how much?
Sweet Mercies by Anne Booth was published by Vintage and costs R360 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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