The Convent transports us to a small, medieval convent on a remote hillside in pre-Franco Spain. The convent’s six remaining nuns, last vestiges of a dying era, lead a tranquil life of prayer and self-sufficiency in their ‘sanctuary from the cruelty of the world’. A sanctuary turned upside down when a baby is abandoned on the convent steps.
You could be deceived by the languid, atmospheric tone of this book. At first I thought it might be one of those slow, descriptive stories where nothing really happens. How wrong I was.
With his precise use of words and simple but evocative language, Panos Karnezis sets the scene for a witches brew of intrigue, speculation and mistrust, forcing the nuns and their overseeing Bishop to exhibit some rather unseemly emotions and behaviours. We’re amongst people who have devoted their lives to serving God, but almost no-one gets away without revealing their less-nice side.
The tormented Mother Superior believes the baby to be a sign from God – a journey back into her past explains how she arrives at this improbable conclusion – but some of the other nuns interpret her reaction to the new arrival in a rather more sinister way. The real story emerges one piece at a time, pondering along the way on the ample expanse of grey area between good and evil; and what happens when two opponents each believe they have God on their side.
If Karnezis’ earlier book The Maze was (according to some reviewers) a rather masculine novel, The Convent is very much a feminine one; the Bishop is the only male character with more than a walk-on part. And whereas Karnezis’ earlier subject matter seems (appropriately enough for a Greek author) to have much in common with Louis de Bernieres’ eastern Mediterranean epics, The Convent’s setting is refreshingly different. Karnezis’ previous writing has also inspired comparisons to Graham Greene, and there are similarities in the understated tone and the way some of the characters seem powerless to stop the steady march towards their doomed fate.
The Convent really needs to be read twice, as the nuances and hints take on a fresh meaning once the book has revealed its secrets. That’s not to say the plot is confusing – rather, it has multiple layers which aren’t always apparent first time around. Indeed some readers might see a tendency to over-explain, but there is also a certain satisfaction in having all the loose ends tied up at the end of the story.
Any Cop?: A wonderful book: clever yet subtle; just the right amount of suspense; and incredibly readable.