This latest novel by British writer Rumer Godden explores a number of themes with which she has dealt in many of her previous fictions. In some respects, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy recapitulates ideas and concerns about which Godden has written through her entire lengthy career. This interesting, intriguing novel, while not one of her best books, might in some ways be considered a summation of the obsessions with which this always fascinating and thoughtful writer has wrestled in volume after volume.
Once again, as in several earlier novels, Godden uses the cloistered setting of the Catholic convent as the vehicle to express her themes. In Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede, she wrote with authority and compassion of the cloistered life and of the women who chose—or were chosen—for it. Perhaps few other writers have expressed so vividly or felt so deeply both the attractions and the pains of this austere, rigorous, and constantly giving way of life, a style of existence which necessarily is endured and celebrated within walls. Now, in her most recent book about the agonies and joys of the religious life, Godden plunges through scenes of depravity in the outer world in order to make yet more vital the mystery and wonder of the inner world of the cloister.
Freedom in confinement has long been a theme which fascinates Godden. The inner freedom found when confined by the strangeness of an alien culture, the peace discovered through trial and error in the holy life, the gradual alleviation of torment when confined against one’s will in a man-made prison—in novel after novel, Godden has woven these threads through her fictional narratives. In Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, the protagonist, Sister Lise, has experienced all of these kinds of bondage and has made her way to the ultimate freedom, the triumphant peace of selflessness. The many themes which weave in and out of the story are heightened by the author’s flashback technique, through which the stages of Lise’s life come to be seen as a whole.
Good and evil, treated both as opposing forces and as different sides of each human personality, have been one of Godden’s major concerns since her first published writings. The problem of the so-called “incorrigible” personality appeared as far back as Black Narcissus, was approached from different points of view in books as varied as An Episode of Sparrows and The Peacock Spring, and was fully analyzed in In This House of Brede. These “evil” personalities struggle, either to dominate or to overcome their inclinations; some triumph over their worse elements, while others, such as Vivi, in this novel, succumb to the evil side of their natures. Always, their struggle is portrayed with compassion and precision.
Closely aligned with this theme is that of the individual’s awakening, be it the...
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