Lambs of God

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The bizarre events described in Lambs of God take place in a decaying monastery on an imaginary island in an unspecified part of the world. The author is so careful about avoiding dropping any clues that the reader can only surmise that the island is located off one of the coasts of Australia or else is somewhere near Great Britain. It is clear, at least, that the island is in an area where the people speak English and where their principal occupations are fishing and raising sheep. (The author herself is a native Australian, which makes that country seem like a slightly better bet than Great Britain.) Although sheep-raising is big business in Australia, in a published interview Marele Day has revealed that she had known nothing about sheep before she started her novel and was in fact a little afraid of real sheep. Day was a fairly successful writer, best known for her Claudia Valentine mystery novels, before the inspiration for the purely escapist fantasy that became Lambs of God impelled her to follow her muse in an entirely new direction.

The sheep in her novel all have names and are all thought to be reincarnations of the many nuns who have died over the years. Since they are regarded as fellow nuns with names inherited from those who have died, the sheep have free run of the monastery and even appear in the chapel, where the survivors hold a whole round of daily devotions. Only three nuns, the island’s only human inhabitants, remain alive. They grow much of their own food and earn a little money by spinning and knitting the wool from their flock of sheep. They entertain one another by making up stories that are loosely based on memories of old fairy tales, stories from the Old Testament, and parables from the New Testament. They have become unkempt and more than a little eccentric in their isolation. They have knitted themselves strange new garments that bear no resemblance to their original habits, which have long since worn out. They still read the Bible, but—not unlike the marooned schoolboys in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954)—they seem to be gradually losing the veneer of civilization and reverting to primitive behavior and superstition.

The bishop of the local diocese has not heard from any of the sequestered nuns in years, and he assumes that the monastery and the island are now deserted. His bright, ambitious young secretary Father Ignatius has conceived a plan to restore the decaying buildings as historical curiosities and to create a luxury tourist resort around them. He thinks the isolation and silence will appeal to wealthy businessmen who want to get away from it all, and he thinks that the island could also serve as an expensive, tax- deductible setting to hold secret, high-level conferences. It is implied, though not stated, that the new resort might be an ideal location for conventions at which notables could romp with playmates without attracting attention.

The island is connected to the mainland by a strand that is underwater most of the time. Father Ignatius drives across at low tide in a rented car but gets stuck in a rut on the disintegrating dirt road while trying to make it up the steep hill. He has to travel the rest of the way on foot. He has a terrible time, because nobody remembers exactly where the monastery was located and because the hills are overgrown with thickets of thorns (as was the castle in the story of “Sleeping Beauty”). In fact, Father Ignatius is destined to reawaken not one but three “sleeping beauties” from their separate dream lives. Many of the events in Lambs of God resemble those in fairy tales, including “The Three Bears” and “Beauty and the Beast.” The nuns spend much of their time telling one another their own modified versions of these and other stories. The island seems almost as mysterious and enchanted as the one in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when Father Ignatius first encounters the women, he is reminded of the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Father Ignatius, all tattered and torn, is first discovered by Sister Carla, the youngest of the three nuns. Like Shakespeare’s Miranda, Carla has never seen a man before and thinks this must be a brave new world that has such handsome strangers in it. She is a true child of nature. She was discovered as a squalling newborn infant on the doorstep and reared by the nuns, who were much more numerous at the time, on diluted ewe’s milk. No one has ever explained anything about sexual development or sexual attraction to Carla, who is now approaching middle age, although it turns out that Sister Margarita and Sister Iphigenia know far more about the subject than they have ever acknowledged. As a mystery writer, Marele Day could not resist the temptation to add an element of mystery to her fantasy; the greatest mystery in the book is the identity of Carla’s mother and the way in which she managed to...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)