Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop (pub date 1/31/12)
It’s difficult to think of the clergy, especially nuns, as being regular people. Because they have chosen a life of service to God, society expects them to be better than the rest of us, perfect, never tempted to do wrong. Here is a novel that turns that idea upside down, and presents a disturbing story of forbidden love and betrayal.
Primarily set in World War II era France, Obedience is the story of a nun, Sister Bernard, who falls in love with a Nazi soldier. This romance quickly becomes the defining moment of the young nun’s life, as it leads her to betray her religious vows and her country. The story alternates between this time period and the present day, in which Sister Bernard, now in her nineties, is sent to live in a rest home after her convent closes. Turned out into the world for the first time in sixty years, she is forced to confront the consequences of her actions during the war, and struggles to deal with the guilt.
This is an unsettling story, filled with contradiction. Sister Bernard has sworn a vow of obedience to God, yet allows herself to become blindly obedient to her German lover, refusing to see the evil that the Nazis stand for. The book also explores Sister Bernard’s personal relationship with God. She once believed that she literally heard God speaking to her, and to her it seemed as if she was constantly unworthy of God’s approval:
“He thinks nothing is right. I can’t please Him.”
But is it God who disapproves of Sister Bernard’s actions, or she herself who subconsciously thinks herself unworthy of love? Jacqueline Yallop’s subtle, matter-of-fact writing style allows the audience to decide that for themselves.
What was interesting for me was that while I found Sister Bernard to be a disagreeable and frustrating character (frustrating because even after everything that has happened as a result of her misdeeds, she still thinks of her Nazi lover with fondness and nostalgia), I found the story to be rich and thought-provoking. It took me a little while to put aside my displeasure for the protagonist’s actions and allow myself to consider her perspective. It takes a good author to give an audience such a morally confused character and still write a story that is at times touching.
Obedience will surprise you, maybe even shock and anger you. You will feel for Sister Bernard, yet still hate her at times. But give this book a chance, because you won’t soon forget it.