I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.
Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.
When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.
Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.
From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.
Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.
It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.
Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.
But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.
The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.
Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters. Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.
Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.
She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.
It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con.
The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.
Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.
The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.
As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.
As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.
Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.
Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!