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In a convent in the French countryside, three elderly nuns prepare to move into a nursing home; they are the last surviving members of their nunnery. Packing up her few belongings, ninetyyearold Sister Bernard struggles to remember the time she has spent in the convent, the years blending together as a fog of ritual, penitence, and sacrifice. But there is one memoryone facethat is impossible to forget.
In chapters alternating between World War II and the present, Jacqueline Yallop’s searing novel moves between the nun’s tragic, passionate youth and her stoic, lonely final years, subtly articulating the decades of suffering incurred by a single act of reckless love.
At the time of the Nazi occupation of her village, Sister Bernard is an ungainly and simpleminded young nun, a woman who hears the harsh and critical voice of God in everything that she does. A crude bet among a group of German troops to seduce her leads to an illicit affair with a blond soldier who she knows only as Schwanz. He is neither tender nor considerate, yet Bernard is overwhelmed by her passion and desire for him; in her desperation to please him, she offers information that she shouldn’t have. Naive and blinded by love, Sister Bernard doesn’t realize the gravity of her betrayal, unaware that she has put events into motion that will lead to the death of several people, including those she cares for mostnor could she imagine the violent and cruel act that will be visited upon her by those she has helped.
Years later, as Sister Bernard prepares to leave the convent forever, small pieces of the life she has struggled to keep secret are revealed; unknown family members appear, and her fellow nun Sister Thérèse discovers the extremes that Sister Bernard has gone to in her attempts to expiate her sins.
In restrained prose, Yallop reveals the degrees of duplicity and abuse, of complicity and manipula¬tion that defined the Nazi occupation of a provincial French town and its lingering effectsprivate and publicdecades later. Obedience is a powerfully affecting portrait of the crimes committed in the name of love and war and of the complexities of guilt, innocence, and absolution.
Jacqueline Yallop studied English at Oxford, holds a Ph.D. in nineteenthcentury literature, and was the curator for the Ruskin Collection in Sheffield, U.K. She currently resides in France.
Q. The story is divided into chapters that alternate between Sister Bernard’s experience during the war and her experience in old age. Why did you choose to present the novel this way? How does such a choice strengthen the effect of the narrative?
The structure evolved naturally: I was as interested in Sister Bernard nowin her old ageas in her youth; I was as fascinated by the repercussions of her actions, both on herself and her community, as by the actions themselves. So it seemed the right decision to alternate between past and present. It helped me, as a writer, focus on a very long life and try to make it seem whole, each part connected to the other; I hope it also encourages the reader to understand the complexity of Sister Bernard’s situation. It also means, of course, that key elements of the plot are delayed, held back so that the reader gradually learns the full story. I believe this helps to give them impact.
Q. What inspired the novel and what kind of research did you do in creating such an authentic representa¬tion of cloistered life?
The novel was initially inspired by a chance conversation shortly after I’d arrived here in France: the local convent was being closed down, and the remaining nuns rehoused. I began to think about what it might be like to have lived such a cloistered life for so long; I became fascinated by the physical evidence of the religious community in our small villagethe convent itself, of course, but other things too such as the crosses that mark road junctions, shrines, wayside chapels. . . . I was also surprised by the immediacy of World War II memories here: I heard many tales about the experience of living in an occupied village. The two combined in thinking about Obedience.
As for a cloistered lifeI attended several convent schools as a child, and grew up with the sense of a mysterious, enclosed community just the other side of the classroom door. I think that’s probably where it all started!
Q. Obedience addresses many painful issues, including treachery, rape, war, and death. Emotionally speak¬ing, was it a difficult novel for you to write?
I find writing is often difficult emotionallyexhausting and intense. But often it’s not the big crises in a character’s life that are most demanding, but the smaller, more complex ones, questions of doubt and ambiguity, of not quite seeing or understanding; a character’s ongoing struggle to know him or herself and those around them.
Q. Sister Thérèse seems adrift in her life outside the convent, unsure of how to maintain her relationship with God in a secular environment. Do you think the cloistered life is necessary to function at the level of extreme devotion that she and Sister Bernard do? Does faith or spirituality play a role in your own life and the decisions you make?
I imagine everyone’s devotion is very personal and that we all express ourselves quite differently in our attempt to sustain some kind of spiritual life. I don’t think enclosure is by any means a prerequisite for a devoted life, nor do I want to suggest that it is in any way reductive: I have a great deal of respect for those who chose to live in that way. I’m not sure how many of us are capable of “extreme devotion,” but it’s probably more possible if you have the support of a close community, sharing everything from daily ups and downs to fundamental questions of belief. One of the things I hope Obedience does is to help us think again about all kinds of faith, about what it means to have a spiritual lifeabout how this impacts on our identity, both for ourselves and for others.
Q. During one of their encounters, Sister Bernard tells the German soldier that her real name is Lucie, but she only discovers his real name when it’s too late; this is a lovely metaphor for the degree of honesty and intimacy each lover brings to the affair, but also raises the issue of Sister Bernard having two selves: Bernard and Lucie. Why are nuns required to take a new name with their vows? What power does a name hold?
I don’t think nuns are always required to change their names these days, but when I was young it was common for nuns to leave their secular names behind and to take new names as a sign that they had rejected their secular life and given themselves to the service of God. The names were often chosen as an expression of respect for or admiration of a particular saint, a way of joining the new nun to an ongoing community of worship, I suppose. I think the whole question of namingof how we identify ourselves and each otheris very interesting. Names certainly hold power: just think of what it’s like if someone calls your name or purposely corrupts your name as a means of insulting you, or if a friend can’t remember your name. Why do women often decide not to change their name on marriage? It’s a big questionlet’s just say that in the book I wanted to explore what might happen with characters who couldto some extentreinvent or disguise themselves by manipulating their names; what freedoms, responsibilities, or identities a name change might evoke or reveal.
Q. Corinne is an intriguing character who holds a good deal of influence over the relationship between Sister Thérèse and Sister Bernard. What do you see as her motives?
I think Corinne is as lonely and confused as Thérèse and Bernard. She sees her relationship with Thérèse as perhaps a final chance for companionship. I think she also wants to see Thérèse break free of the confines of the convent; she wants Thérèse to live a fulfilling life and I thinkdespite her own religious devotionshe has doubts about the possibility of doing this within the strictest structures of the Church. Paradoxically, I think she also envies the nuns and what she sees as their religious certainty and their close personal relationship to God.
Q. Sister Bernard sees the beauty of the abbey church as “the huge, silent, unhuman proof of His towering, timeless divinity” (p. 229). Have you ever had a similar experience in a sacred or historical setting? Why are physical spaceslike the abbeycapable of inspiring such strong emotional and spiritual responses?
I’m sure all of us get a tingle sometimes when we go into an old building and begin to glimpse the his¬tory of which it is a part. I don’t think it’s confined to sacred buildings by any means, but it’s true that some of the most spectacular and moving buildings I’ve been to are in some way sacred to the communities that made them. I’ve certainly felt the resonance of particular buildings or places, some obviously spectacular, like Durham Cathedral or the Bayon at Ankor Wat, others much more modest but equally impressive: Neolithic dolmens in the countryside here, for example, or stone circles. I think these kinds of spaces demand an emotional response; aside from their architectural grandeurthe immediate wow factorthey connect you in a very tangible, immediate way to the people who were there before you, their hopes and fears and dreams, their beliefs. They evidence the continuum to which we all belong; they make us aware, of course, of how tiny, insignificant, and fleeting our lives are. This sudden shift of perspective inevitably seems to make us think about fundamental questions of life and death, and encourage us to examine our own values and what is important to us.
Q. You hold a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture. Can you tell your readers a little bit more about your academic work, and how, if at all, it has informed your fiction writing?
My academic work is quite broad. I’ve always been interested in literature, but through my work in museums and art galleries, I’ve also explored everything from Old Master paintings to contemporary silverware. My approach is interdisciplinary: I look at the crossovers between different means of expression and how social, political, and economic factors can be seen to influence our cultural lives. Most recently I’ve written a book on Victorian collectors: this was enormously enjoyable since it not only allowed me to tell the wonderfully eccentric stories of the collectors themselves but also to look at what was going on across the world in the nineteenth century and why this made it such a rich and unique time for anyone who wanted to collect. On the whole I don’t think my academic research has a great influence on my fiction writing, although it’s probably inevitable that a grounding in Victorian novels will make itself felt one way or another!
Q. Obedience is an excellent example of the influence of style on narrative effect; had the story been written in a more sentimental tone, it would not be nearly as powerful or compelling. What do you see as the defin¬ing features of your writing style? How would you describe your work?
I think I’d struggle to do “sentimental”it just wouldn’t feel rightbut on the whole I find it tricky to define my writing style. I think readers are probably much better placed to do that. I certainly recognize a detachment in tone, and quite an intense, descriptive style. I hope my work is accessibleI aim for clear, poised proseand that at the heart of it is a good strong narrative that readers enjoy. I have a great respect for readers, and I hope I allow room for them to interpret the work in their own way, from their own expe¬riences. I try to resist the temptation to tell readers what they should think: I prefer to allow more natural ambiguities that hopefully make the work more interesting to discover
Q. What are you currently working on?
I’m currently lucky enough to be working on another novel. Set in England, this time, it’s in part a love story, in part a story about how we’re all held in thrall to our personal and family histories. I’ve set it in a decaying country house at the end of the 1960s, at a time when social change was very obvious. It’s great fun: having characters romping around a big old house and overgrown estate gives lots of scope for eccen¬tricities and surprises.
- There is a perception held by numerous characters that Sister Bernard is unintelligent. Do you agree? Does she really hear the voice of God?
- Consider your own definition of love, and of the many types of love a person can experience. Does Sister Bernard love the German soldier? Does she love God? Are these two relationships similar in any way?
- What are the German soldier’s true feelings toward Sister Bernard? Do his feelings change at all over the course of the novel?
- Why does Corinne bring Sister Thérèse and Sister Bernard to the Armistice celebration? What does Sister Thérèse learn there? Why does she feel as though “the past had freed her” (p. 101)?
- Why does Mother Catherine demand that Sister Bernard confess at the village church? What lie does she tell Sister Bernard when doing so? What are Father Raymond’s intentions in leaving the confessional door open when speaking with Sister Bernard?
- Does Sister Thérèse have an obligationmoral, religious, or otherwiseto remain with Bernard at the nursing home?
- There are many instances of betrayal in the novel. Sister Bernard’s informing on Sister Jean is the most obvious example, but is she really aware of what she is doing? Does that make it any less of a betrayal? What other incidents can you find?
- Look at the commandant’s comment about Mother Catherine on pages 263-264. What is he suggesting about her loyalty to the community and her behavior toward the Germans?
- Examine the points at which Sister Bernard stops hearing the voice of God. What do these moments have in common?
- Ultimately, no one is guiltless during wartime; for all of Sister Bernard’s suffering, she too has blood on her hands. With whom do your sympathies lie in this novel? Is there any transgression too horrible to be forgiven or, as the cliché says, does time heal all wounds?woman has advanced to a position of power through her beauty, sexuality, or wit? Can you think of any men who have followed a similar path?