I started reading this for Brona’s Rumer Godden Reading Week, but didn’t manage to finish it until the week was over. Still, I’m grateful to Brona for motivating me to pick up my first Rumer Godden novel, even if I’m late with this review!
Black Narcissus, published in 1939, is one of Godden’s best known books, made into a successful Powell and Pressburger film in 1947 and adapted again for television by the BBC in 2020. It tells the story of a group of Anglican nuns who set out to establish a new convent in an abandoned palace in Mopu, high in the Himalayas. Once known as ‘the House of Women’, the palace had been home to the General’s harem; now the General’s son has donated it to the nuns for them to use as a hospital and school for the local community. A group of missionary brothers had already tried to do the same, but left after just a few months, giving us an early indication of the difficulties and challenges the nuns will face.
Leading the mission is Sister Clodagh, the newly appointed Sister Superior, and she is accompanied by four other sisters, each with a different role to play in the new convent. As the Sisters try to adapt to their new way of life, Mopu gradually casts its spell upon them and each finds herself being affected in a way she had never expected. Sister Philippa, responsible for the convent gardens, worries that she is becoming ‘too fond of the place’; Sister Honey grows too attached to the children who come to the school and to the hospital; Sister Ruth becomes obsessed with the General’s charismatic agent, Mr Dean; and Sister Clodagh receives constant painful reminders of her past in Ireland and the man she once thought she would marry.
There are other characters – the General’s heir, Dilip Rai, a handsome young man who comes to the convent in search of an education; Kanchi, a beautiful girl from the village whose uncle wants her to spend some time with the Sisters because she is ‘behaving so badly that no one wants her’; and Ayah, the elderly housekeeper at the palace – but the focus of the novel is on the nuns and how they try to adjust to the unfamiliar world in which they find themselves. The culture of Mopu is very different from anything they have previously experienced and despite advice given to them by Mr Dean, the nuns struggle to understand the local traditions and superstitions. As the story progresses it seems that they will never understand and that they are doomed to fail in their mission as others have failed before them.
This is a dark and atmospheric novel, but in a quiet and restrained way. There are some moments of drama but this is a story driven by the characters and their inner thoughts and desires as their repressed feelings rise to the surface and tensions grow, particularly between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. I’m not sure whether it’s a book I would read again, but I’m very pleased to have read it once and will definitely be reading more by Rumer Godden.
This is book 26/50 from my second Classics Club list.