Friday, April 11, 2014

Book Review: The Nun (2011) by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

A novel about a teenage girl confined against her will in a convent in southern Italy in the 1840s sounds like it would be either a springboard for a polemic on how awful things were for women once upon a time, or the outline for a gothic potboiler featuring nuns who are either sadistic or naughty (my favourite kind). The Nun is far more sophisticated than that.

The story begins in 1839 when Sicily is still an independent kingdom, albeit an impoverished one, and the local nobles spend most of their time currying favour with the king in order to win pensions or jobs. Agata, the titular heroine, belongs to the Padellani family, an aristocratic family that falls on hard times when the family patriarch dies. Gesuela, Agata's mother, is left with the problem of how to provide dowries for her daughters. Money is short and her influence at court is waning, so Gesuela opts to dispatch Agata to a convent in Naples, one that caters to the unwanted daughters of the aristocracy. Agata does not want to enter the convent as she is love with Giacomo, and also because she feels wants to be part of the wider world, not cloistered away from it. On her way by ship to Naples from Sicily, she meets James Garson, an English shipowner with business interests throughout Italy. She catches his eye and on an impulse he sends her a book, Pride and Prejudice, and thus begins a correspondence based on books. Garson sends her books of all kinds, from politics to poetry to gothic thrillers, and she sends him thank you notes in which she comments on the books she's read. As the years pass in the convent, Agata vacillates between continuing on the path to being a nun or trying to find a way to leave and make her own way in the world. She also falls in love with Garson.

Hornby does a brilliant job of juggling several different genres in her novel, the primary one being the story of Agata's intellectual coming-of-age. Agata is curious and intelligent and wants to make a difference in the world but isn't sure if her life is best lived in or out of the convent. It would have been easy to portray the convent as a stifling hellhole, but Hornby shows that in the context of the limited options available to women at that time, the religious life offered some advantages. In the secular world the women of Agata's class are consumed with getting husbands, and marriages rarely arise out of love. Marriage in Agata's world is all about dowries and mercantile alliances. In the convent, Agata can pursue a career as a pharmacist/doctor. On the downside, the convent is as full of jealousy, scandal and hatred as the outside world. Agata's intellectual journey is mirrored by upheavals in the wider world, as Europe moves towards a series of democratic revolutions and rebellions that erupt in 1848. The historical fiction side of the novel isn't ignored; Hornby neatly balances historical detail with plot and character-building, never letting the history lessons become obtrusive or dry. Finally, the romantic plot is smartly used to give the story tension and pace, and it never descends into melodrama.

Although Agata doesn't turn out to be as naughty a nun as I hoped (those Italian films from the 1970s must have been lying), in every other way this is a superb work of historical fiction that is as much about intellectual growth as it is the colorful and dramatic aspects of a forgotten time and place.

No comments: