Black Narcissus

Title: Black Narcissus

Writer: Rumer Godden

Publishing House: Virago Press (UK)

Date of Publication: February 1st 2013 (first published 1939)

Ratings: 5 stars

‘’Look at the eagles,’ he said.

In the gulf eagles were flying, circling round one small spot in the air. Higher and higher they flew, but still they could not reach the head of cloud that hid the mountain in the north; they could not reach its foot. Circling, they flew a fraction higher; it seemed that they would reach it, but always they were beaten down to be lost in the colours of the valley and they always came up to circle dizzily again.

 Mr Dean sent his hat spinning round in his finger. ‘I told you it was no place to put a nunnery.’’

Sister Clodagh searches for her sanctuary, a place to build her Heaven on Earth to serve God and escape her demons. Sister Briony wants to offer kindness. Sister Honey endures hardships with a bright smile on her face. Sister Philippa is afraid of losing herself. Sister Adela is one point short of resorting to self-flagellation. Sister Ruth lives in an absurd world of her own, populated with imaginary shadows and enemies. The Palace in the Clouds can hardly contain the tension and suppressed instincts of the newcomers who ignore Dean’s warnings and believe they can tame spirits beyond their understanding…

‘’You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.’’

A masterpiece that withstands the test of time, a haunting lament of lost innocence and thwarted aspirations, a fable of being vain enough to presume that you can mould a different world according to your principles no matter whether your intentions are pure as an infant’s heart. In a landscape that shelters and threatens, upon a mountain which gives you the impression that you can touch God’s feet, a company of women bravely defies the odds. But you cannot win unless there is unity and honesty and help from the ones who claim to ‘’be there for you’’. When a member of the odd fellowship loses all connection to reality, when the distrust of the locals grows stronger and stronger, when you deny your own self, what else remains?

“Sometimes it seemed to him that the house had a bad wild life of its own; the impression of its evil lingered, in its name, in its atmosphere…”

I watched the excellent 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger when I was about 13. It has haunted my mind ever since. The shadows dancing in the lurid halls the nuns attempt to turn into something ‘sacred’, the sound of the bells, the treachery of red lips and stormy skies. The novel and the film (don’t get me started on the abominable BBC TV series…) remain iconic, symbols of dishonesty, betrayal, sexual repression, madness and a severe lack of communication between the locals and the newcomers. Both parties are lost. Both parties refuse to understand the other, imprisoned in a cell of superstitions and pre-conceived notions about ‘’two contrasting views of the world.’’ Foundations are impossible. The building is bound to collapse…

“I don’t expect you to understand me any more than I can understand you; but I respect you and that’s the difference between us.”