The liberation of Sr Brigid Dunne, Mother Superior of a French order of nuns with a convent in Ireland, occurs after her 80th birthday when she's finally allowed to retire. But before she is 'liberated', she must take stock of her life thus far and her long career as a nursing nun, mostly working in Africa.
Her conclusions about her life, and especially about her vocation, make for compelling and surprising reading. There are others in Brigid's life who need some liberating, too, most especially her sister Imelda, still alive and kicking. Though mostly kicking. And there's Imelda's daughter Keelin, herself a nun once upon a time - in the same order as Brigid - until she fell pregnant by a priest! And the child of Keelin's pregnancy, Marie-Claire, working with her partner in Toronto until she finds he's double-dealing with an office junior.
Brigid's birthday party is destroyed by her sister Imelda, who, after a few drinks, decides this is the time to divulge a few ancient family secrets.
The fallout is absolutely catastrophic.
A sour and bitter woman, Imelda is definitely the most carefully drawn character in the novel, and Scanlan depicts - with absolute clarity and utter conviction - a woman who, on the one hand thinks poisonous thoughts about others while on the other hand, is feeding a stray cat and is insistently taking care of the "poor craythurs" she comes across.
"By their deeds shall ye know them", says one of the gospels and we are shown repeatedly in this story that, although she says truly terrible things and even thinks them, Imelda is no bitch.
Brigid is no saint, either. Her decision to enter the convent walls had less to do with a "calling" and more to do with escaping her own predicament of facing a life of near-slavery in dreary, rural Ireland. That said, she had difficulties of her own, and her life in a 1950's convent reminded me of Camillus Metcalfe's shocking For God's Sake: The Hidden Life of Irish Nuns. Both Brigid and Imelda are flesh-and-blood characters who have survived tyranny and oppression in their very different lives, and Scanlan is careful to show us that neither of them had it easy. Far from it.
Imelda married a local businessman, had children and was a supportive wife, despite her husband's infidelity.
She was also a dutiful daughter to her ageing parents and minded her husband's mother in her own twilight years. This is such a familiar story among women of Imelda's generation that it's almost a cliché. How many of our mothers suffered the same fate?
Imelda's daughter and granddaughter play supporting roles and are intrinsic ingredients in the powerplay between the siblings, but essentially this novel is about the life choices - or lack of them - between Brigid and Imelda. It is also a potted history of the Women's Lib movement in Ireland, the appalling scandal of the mother and baby homes, the septic tank graveyard in Tuam, the secularisation of this country and the remarkable freedom an individual can acquire by simply changing their minds.
Given the historical sweep, it must be said that this is by far Scanlan's most ambitious novel. And she pulls it off. Beautifully. Bravissima.
The Liberation of Brigid Dunne, Patricia Scanlan, Simon & Schuster €15.99
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