A cloistered monk debuts with the increasingly captivating tale of a 19-year-old who becomes a novitiate and then a full-fledged monk in Canada, near Winnipeg.
Average readers may respond as does the lady, sitting next to Paul Seneschal on the bus, when he tells her that he wants to become a monk. “Why would anyone do that?” His answer, “To find meaning in life,” may trigger incredulity, and some readers, may even feel put off, as Paul’s parents do, especially his brash and outspoken mother, back in Paul’s hometown of St. Jean-Baptiste. In the monastery, after all, the monks wear wool habits, have shaved heads, attend prayer and song each day, sleep in one big room, and almost never speak except by sign language. Why would a normal young man choose such a life—working in the barn, bakery, piggery, or cheese house, in the fields during harvest time, and going entirely without, well, sex? At the start, in fact, Paul seems one-dimensional, almost shallow, and sexless to the point of the unrealistic—until he becomes infatuated with a muscular Scot named Martin and another form of cliché comes to the fore as Paul struggles against his desire so fiercely that he even considers—and tries—self-castration. And yet, near this point, Rougeau’s story also begins to grow richer, find its voice, and draw the reader in as Paul (renamed Antoine) matures, witnesses the deaths of other (sometimes eccentric, even outright crabby) monks, hosts a small group of Buddhists, learns the humility of taking life for exactly what it is, and, a handful of years later when he at last takes vows, discovers that the truth of the monastic purpose is “to discover his weight as a human being”—a notion that, by then, has meaning for the reader too.
Gradually deepening work that gives, by end, a view of the monastic life that’s steady, whole, intelligent, and moving.