A deliberate and somewhat plodding account of life inside a Carmelite convent, told with a surfeit of awe by Salzman (The Soloist, 1994; the nonfiction Lost in Place, 1995), who seems to have read too much Rumer Godden for his own good.
To write from the perspective of a contemplative nun is no small undertaking, since most enclosed convents allow few visitors (and certainly no men) much access to the inner workings of their daily lives. Salzman, however, has clearly researched his subject well, and has assembled a credible cast in a reasonable facsimile of a strictly enclosed convent. Center-stage here is Sister John of the Cross, who entered the Carmel (convent) in 1969. An intellectual (and a writer), Sister John suffers many years of barren unhappiness at the Carmel before she begins to enjoy visions and moments of ecstatic happiness in prayer. Suspicious of false visionaries by nature (and according to the precepts of the Rule of their order), the other nuns gradually come to trust the reality of Sister John’s spiritual insights and look upon her as a kind of guide and anchor for the community. But trouble intervenes when Sister John develops a series of chronic migraines and is diagnosed with a rare epileptic disorder. The doctor recommends surgery, and is fairly certain that he can cure the condition—which was quite probably the root of her visions in the first place. So Sister John has to face what is (to her) the worst catastrophe imaginable: a life devoid of the sensible perception of God. Salzman sketches her dilemma with great sensitivity and a light touch, using short, almost impressionistic chapters and flashbacks that attempt to capture the seasonal rhythms of religious life. But there is profound flatness in his perspective that—despite many moving interior passages—fails to convey any convincing sense of the interior life that is the central point of such vocations.
A valiant and intelligent failure: despite his best efforts, Salzman has created a kind of ecclesiastical drag-show that fails to get below the surface of life in the Carmel.