In Nolan Martin’s (The Sublime Transformation of Vera Wright, 2012) latest novel, a group of eccentric nuns struggle to find themselves and each other in a convent.
Gemma stands on a hill, talking to the Hudson River. Arielle, fresh from rehab, wakes up in a jail cell to a vision of an angel. Prioress Michael Agnes reads through correspondence from the Vatican. Although each character is very different, they all soon find themselves at the same convent on a farm near Albany, N.Y. Gemma so wants to be saintly that she conducts secret acts of penance, putting rock salt in her too-small shoes and wearing full winter habits in the heat of summer. She tends the fields of the farm and protects her secret: She hears the voice of her “twin,” Maya, who begs to be “let out,” only to be pushed down by Gemma’s saintly aspirations. Sister Mike works to keep the ragtag group of nuns together, as the convent is hemorrhaging money, and caring for the group (and the “grand ancient mystic” Mother Augusta) is taking its toll. When former criminal Arielle is sent to the convent, she’s not Catholic, nor anything close to a saint, but something immediately changes. Arielle touches the life of each nun in a different way—attending to Mother Augusta, becoming Gemma’s confidante, and even getting Mike an iPhone for the office. However, Gemma’s inner voices become too much for her, and when it appears that “Maya” is here to stay, each woman springs into action. In a novel that’s similar in structure and tone to Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997), Nolan Martin tells the story from the viewpoints of each main character and truly gives each her own distinct voice—not an easy feat. Readers get a beautifully fleshed-out and complete look at their likes, dislikes, fears and pasts, all of which add to the intensity of the novel’s main plotline. The story crosses all barriers of religion, and readers needn’t be Catholic or even Christian to appreciate its universal tropes. The author brings her obvious spirituality and humanity to this wonderful, relatable tale of failure, love and triumph.
A gorgeous novel about finding redemption.