Saturday, 30 March 2013

Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus is the story of five nuns setting up an order in a disused palace high in the Himalayas.  The house has a dubious reputation, only Ayah remains there and she says nothing.  Sister Clodagh is in charge, attractive and capable, it gradually emerges that she became a nun after her Irish sweetheart did not want to marry her.  Sister Philippa tends the garden, Sister Briony runs the dispensary, Sister Honey runs the lace school and Sister Ruth teaches the local children.

Mr Dean the English agent has spent many years in India and provides the carpentry, maintenance and building design for the nuns as well as offering practical advice which the nuns often choose to ignore.  Whether it is the high altitude of the Himalayas or the bad reputation of the palace something begins to affect the nuns.  Sister Phillipa becomes obsessed with ordering plants for the garden, Sister Clodagh keeps reliving her past in Ireland, Sister Honey yearns for a child of her own and Sister Ruth can't keep her eyes of Mr Dean.  Only Sister Briony remains the same.

Sister Ruth is a fascinating character.  Young and vulnerable, there is a suggestion that she became a nun after suffering some sort of mental illness.  She has glittering green eyes and is nicknamed the Snake-Faced Sister by Ayah.  She is convinced that Sister Clodagh likes Mr Dean and is bitter with jealousy.  Rumer Godden builds a tense, simmering atmosphere and events come to a head when a woman brings a dying baby to the dispensary.  Sister Honey tries to help the baby despite being warned by Mr Dean never to treat a dying child.  Sister Ruth then goes looking for Mr Dean ...can't say anymore or it will give the game away! 

Rumer Godden wrote Black Narcissus on the upper birth of a ship travelling from India to England with her baby in the bunk below. She was just 32 when it was published in 1939.  It bought her money, fame, success and unhappiness, too.  You must read it.

16 comments:

lyn said...

I'm looking forward to reading this after buying a copy of the lovely Virago reprint. The movie is wonderful & Kathleen Byron is very good as Sister Ruth.

Bonnie said...

Sounds like a wonderful read on a dark rainy day. I 'm adding it to my list

Teresa said...

I saw and loved the film version of this book several years ago and only learned that it was a book relatively recently. I definitely want to read it one day.

Anbolyn said...

I've always wanted to read Rumer Godden and think the new Virago reprints are so beautiful - not easy to get in the States, though. I will start with Black Narcissus if I do find a way to buy them!

Sunday Taylor said...

Oh this sounds excellent! What a great story of how she wrote this book. I will definitely be getting this one!

Iris said...

Wonderful post! I have this out from the library, but haven't found the time to read it yet. I can't wait to, though. Sounds like a very worthwhile read.

Cosy Books said...

Now you've done it!

I loved An Episode of Sparrows and pondered whether anything else would ever compare but this sounds fabulous.

Penny O'Neill said...

You are right! I must read this.

Ellen said...

Ok, you've sold it me! Yet another to add to the pile!

Desperate Reader said...

This is a brilliant book - you're so right; it must be read!

cathy@potterjotter.blogspot.co.uk said...

Oooh, I watched that film again on telly not long ago and it still gives me the creeps. Never knew it was from a book though - will have to give it a go. xCathy

fleurfisher said...

Yes, I must. I love the film - and it reminded me that Rumer Godden wrote for adults as well as writing many books I fell in love with a child. And I definitely need to replace my tatty Penguin copy with a lovely new Virago edition.

debbie bailey said...

Both book and movie sound wonderful! Exactly the kind I like. Thanks for the introduction.

Vintage Reading said...

Lyn, I've just read Kingfisher's Catch Fire and I've bought China Court. So wonderful that RG is back in print!

Bonnie, do post about it if you read it.

Teresa, it's been a while since I've seen the film I must get a copy, apparently RG hated it!

Anbolyn, I entered Virago's competion to win a copy but no luck! They are priced at £9.99 each which I think is a little steep for a paperback.

Sunday and Iris, hope you enjoy it! Please post if you read it.

Cosy Books, not read An Episode of Sparrows. Godden was quite prolific so I've a few still to read!

Penny and Ellen, I hope you read it and will have time to post.

Desperate Reader, I'm working my way through the three Indian novels at the moment. Kingfisher's Catch Fire is very good, too.

Cathy, the film is very truly frightening although Rumer Godden was not keen on it, apparently.

fleurfisher, I've scoured second hand bookshops for years trying to find a copy of BN so if you have an original, hang on to it!

Debbie, hope you enjoy it!

Susan said...

Oh, I haven't heard of this one by her, I have no idea why. It sounds interesting. I'll be looking for a copy at my library to read. Thanks for an interesting review of a forgotten classic :-)

Mystica said...

This I have to read! thanks for the review. Now to try to find it.