The convent by Maureen McCarthy
Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2012. ISBN 9781742375045.
(Age: 16+) Highly recommended. This is a delightfully engaging novel about four women tied together by family and setting: the Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne. The novel opens in contemporary times with Peach, a 19 year old university student seeking a summer job at one of the convent's cafes. She flags at the outset that this story will be about the past, about the impact of the lives of three other women on her own... but she doesn't yet know the missing link - the convent itself.
And so the reader moves back and forth between Peach and the stories of Sadie (whose child was taken from her in 1915), her daughter Ellen (brought up in the convent in the 1920s) and Cecilia (a young nun at the same convent in the sixties). It is not only the setting that ties these women together, it is also religion and babies. And their stories have a modern echo in Peach's own life, for her dear, damaged friend Det, is pregnant - will she keep the baby or give it up for adoption? And how will her plans impact on Peach, herself an adopted child? As Det is an artist with a studio in the convent, the ties of place and birth are even stronger.
This novel is written with warmth and intelligence. The characters are very real, their personal struggles are sympathetically evoked and so their lives are immediately engaging. With only one first person narrator (Peach) the reader is able to learn more about her back story than Peach herself, so our interest in the mystery of this family saga is constantly being tweaked. On one level, this story is about a young girl coming to terms with her history, her identity and her sense of family; it is about the ties of friendship and romance. But layered over this is the broader and richer story of changing times, of opportunities for women, of the impact of motherhood and religious conviction and love. It is a story with warmth and heart and style; a winning combination from well-known author, Maureen McCarthy.