Sister Agnes (her full name is Agnes Bourdillon) is a very contemporary figure. She had been a nun for 15 years, and indeed still is, but is now allowed to live by herself in a bedsit where, at first, she works on a project for runaway teenagers, run by her old friend, Father Julius. It was he who "had managed to persuade the Archdiocese to employ her, even though theirs was an Order which preferred to keep its sisters firmly within its own four walls . An unusual arrangement .... but then Agnes had never been an ordinary nun". (The understatement of the year?) She had been brought up in France by parents who largely ignored her and then been married to the sexually aggressive and violent Hugh Bourdillon, with whom she meets up again in the first book, Sacred Hearts. It was Father Julius, who, as a young curate in France, had rescued her from her husband's clutches and found a place for her in a convent.
She is very conscious of "all the anguish, the battles with her superiors that had resulted in her final ejection. ... For more than fifteen years she had been locked in a battle where the forces of doubt and reason had raged against the quiet mysteries of the convent. ... She had heard the voice of God himself calling to her, and she had deliberately covered her ears". Yet she remains a nun: "I made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. Nothing's changed .... It's been an awkward compromise .... but I'm as much a nun as I ever was .... My faith is etched right through me". She still seems to have major problems with those vows, though, especially that of chastity - she is the most sexually explicit of the clerical nuns.
Sister Agnes is the creation of Alison Joseph (1959- ) who was born in North London, graduated in French and Philosophy at Leeds University, became a presenter on a local radio station, then moved back to London to work on Channel Four. In 1985 she founded an independent production company, Works on Screen. She is also the author of some original radio dramas and has adapted novels for BBC Radio 4. She is married with three children.
She told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus that ""Sister Agnes is a character who has developed over the years. I spent a lot of time thinking about detectives and found the most successful ones were those without any ties, such as Phillip Marlowe. So I chose a nun as it's difficult to think of a female character who doesn't have anyone relying on her, such as a mother, daughter, or partner."
Sacred Hearts (1994)
Sacred Hearts tells the story of Sister Agnes' first investigation, in which she reads in a newspaper that her wealthy ex-husband Hugh Bourdillon has been accused of the murder of Philippa, his second wife, in the Gloucestershire village of Chidscombe. Although Hugh had terrorized Agnes for years, she does not believe him capable of murder, so she sets off to investigate. She finds her ex-husband as sexually attractive/repellent as ever, but finds she can befriend Inspector Lowry, who is in charge of the case and prepared to confide in her.
Even Hugh's manservant has no hesitation in telling her, at their very first meeting, that Philippa had been blackmailing men. Agnes later discovers that her victims were all transvestites. She even manages to question Hugh: "Must you play detectives?", he complains. "It's so tiresome." But there's no stopping her.
She is well seen in action when two very nondescript men try to pick up her and her new friend Agatha in a pub: "Come on," said Frank. "Let's go somewhere. I've got the BMW outside." "You mean the K reg. seven-series in the car park?" asked Agnes suddenly. Frank and Dave stared. "Yeah." "Three-way catalytic convertor, sixteen-valver, nought to sixty in eight point five -" They stared some more ... She turned sweetly to Dave, "So the C reg. Ford Escort parked next to it must be yours?" Dave nodded, suddenly sullen. "What a shame," Agnes continued. "At the convent we had a fleet of Jags, until we replaced them with Peugeots."
"At the convent?" echoed Dave ... "Well, if you're a nun, you won't be after a shag, will you?"
"Agnes allowed her gaze to pass from his sweaty forehead to his groin, where it lingered, and then back up to his face, Looking at him levelly, she said, 'With you? Good heavens, no.' " She may not be an entirely likely nun, but she's certainly a force to be reckoned with.She has her holier moments, though: "Here she was, a nun, installed in a hotel room by her ex-husband, surrounded by flowers sent by him, and about to have her dress sense reawakened by a woman who was possibly his mistress ... She got up from the bed, and for the next twenty minutes was lost in prayer, in preparation for the day, absorbed in contemplation of the holy mysteries that wove like a silken thread through her very being. Emerging once again into more worldly things, she decided to visit the police." But even she cannot always secure their help: "Inspector Lowry was adamant. 'I'm sorry, Sister, our files are classified information, We can't show them to any passing bod who asks to see them.' " It's good to have a touch of realism breaking in here, although I'm not too sure if a police inspector would really be so casual as to refer to "any passing bod".
Amongst those whom Agnes interviews is the local vicar, "the Reverend Just-Call-Me-Bob" Evans, who described Philippa as "a recent acquaintance, but, I may say, one of my successes."
While Agnes was struggling to work out how a murder victim could be described as a success, he went on, "She told me only a few days before the - er- event, that she had taken Jesus into her heart."
"It must be difficult," said Agnes, 'to preach the - er - Good News in a traditional village like this."
"Oh, you'd be surprised. I mean, at first I had to wake them up a bit - they'd got used to their little ways. You know, incense, bells, all that stuff. But you see, when you allow him to, Jesus will speak directly to His People, as I'm sure you know, Agnes."
"I've been here two years, and so far thirty-four people have welcomed Him into their lives."
"And what about the others?" Agnes said through tight lips.
"What others?" Revd Evans beamed placidly, oblivious of the acid tone of her voice.
"The other believing and faithful people who come to your church without 'taking Jesus into their lives'?"
"Oh, give them time, Agnes, Jesus can move the hardest of hearts." "A silence hung in the room, and Bob Evans failed to realize how uncomfortable it was."
Eventually Agnes solves the murder(s). Not all the characters are totally convincing, but the religious background is well handled, even if Agnes' own position as a very independent minded nun seems distinctly unusual, but her own religious motivation shines through: "Agnes sat in the soft darkness of the confessional, calling to mind her sins .... With relief she settled for the old familiar words, with relief she received her penance and her absolution."
But Hugh still lusts after her: " 'I've never fucked a nun before,' he laughed, caressing her body, which was still and cold, oblivious of her lack of response." Then she threw a large terracotta pot at him, knocking him out. Yet, as she later told Father Julian, "I'm as bad as he is ... Within me there lurks all the badness, all the warped, perverted desires - however bad he can be, I respond with worse ... I'm beyond saving." But Father Julius, at least, always has time for her. And it all makes entertaining reading.
The Hour of Our Death (1995)
The Hour of Our Death is an interesting well-told story, set in the large London teaching hospital of St Hugh's, where Sister Agnes is now a hospital visitor. When an administrative assistant there suddenly collapses and dies, and it appears that the post-mortem is being conducted in a highly irregular manner, Agnes soon gets involved. Indeed she spends so much time looking into the mystery that her work at the hostel for teenage runaways gets neglected, and her old friend Father Julius is sorely troubled, particularly when she falls in love with one of the suspects. It all ends in rather a melodramatic way, but it holds the interest throughout, helped along by the author's ever-present sense of humor as when an old lady asks, "Did Agnes think that the Virgin Mary was watching us, because she didn't mind the angels looking down but women are so much more critical, aren't they?"
Sister Agnes is prepared to do just about everything, including burglary if necessary. And when she falls in love, she is prepared to break her vow of chastity: "For reasons she could barely understand, she had deliberately, joyfully even, broken her vows" And she wept. As she's not very strong on obedience either, and does not go in too much for poverty, she seems fortunate to belong to an order that accepts her. "My previous order was Benedictine," she explains. "... and now I'm in a more open order, an Ignation order". All this stretches belief a bit, but she certainly comes across as a real and vital person.
Her religious life, though, is far from over. Her life in the order, "was the only life she could imagine now, for her, the only possible way to make sense of the world. Life without faith, she thought. It was unthinkable. And is it Thy will, she asked God, that I should go sniffing round the hospital in search of evil?" Father Julius thought not, and Agnes suspected that "Julius is always bloody right." But her old friend, worldly Athena, is always at hand to encourage her. It's she who sums up everything at the end when she says, "Well, that's that, then. Our two affairs started and finished .... and a murder or two. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?" And she took a large swig of white wine.
It is the grand old patient, Kathleen, whom Agnes befriends in the hospital, and gets to act as her spy, who, when told at the end of the book that Agnes is to go off on retreat for a fortnight with the Holy Sisters, says, "Holy Sisters, eh?"
"Yes, Sisters like me."
"You're different," Kathleen stopped pouting and broke into a peal of laughter. "It'll take more than a couple of weeks for you to confess all your sins." It's this sort of lively humour that makes the book so appealing.
The Quick and the Dead (1996)
The Quick and the Dead sees Agnes still working at the hostel for teenage runaways. When Sam, a 16 year old girl whom she has helped, goes missing, and gets involved with anti-road protestors who have constructed a tree-top encampment on the edge of Epping Forest, Agnes spends a lot of time there - too much time, in fact, as the teenagers aren't all that interesting.
Agnes is still "part of an open order, whose London base was a house in Hackney, but whose sisters lived and worked wherever the order thought fit". However, her superior, Sister Christine, warns her "that I might be getting too involved with the hostel kids, at the expense of my religious life. How can you be too involved? There is no such thing". They even suggest she should take a year away from London, teaching French at a school in Yorkshire. But first, she's determined to find and rescue Sam - and, as always, she seems to get away with doing exactly what she wants. "Just - sometimes - give yourself some peace," her old friend long-suffering Father Julius advises her. But she follows her own uphill path.
One of her protagonists in this story is the evangelist pastor, Ross Turner, but she cannot accept his constant harping on the devil. "What there is of Satan in me - it's me ... it's a distraction to call it Satan. I'd rather take responsibility for what I am, including the potential to do harm". I found all this, as well as the account of her bouncy friend Athena's reaction on finding herself pregnant, of much more interest than the more sketchily drawn teenagers living up in the trees. It is the religious issues that remain in the memory, as when Agnes questioned the whole idea of God as father: "What is God, then?" she wondered. "This benign omnipotent deity who loves us unconditionally, like a father, we're told. Like a father? What do I know of fatherhood but neglect? And what does Sam know, but her step-father's abuse?
"As Agnes' faith seems to be wavering, Father Julius gets increasingly concerned, as does Agnes herself. Meanwhile, the main plot about the protestors seems to get unduly prolonged, and, as chapter follows chapter, it seems that the final outcome is being endlessly postponed. At the very end, though, Agnes agrees to go off to teach in Yorkshire. "Acceptance," she says. "If I can learn that, I'll be getting somewhere". But it's not one of the author's best books.
A Dark and Sinful Death (1997)
A Dark and Sinful Death sees Sister Agnes teaching at an expensive girls' boarding school run by nuns in West Yorkshire. An art teacher disappears, and a young gardener is found murdered, his face horribly mutilated. There's obviously some connection with a local textile factory, and Sister Agnes soon gets involved in lots of lengthy conversations. I must say I didn't find the plot all that arresting, and was sorry that more use was not made of the school background which comes across as rather vague and unreal, but perhaps the author was not all that familiar with it. What she did really know about was working in radio and TV, but unfortunately none of her books seem to make use of this background. Although things certainly happen (including "terminal illness and world cruises and still-life painting and breaking and entering", as Agnes tells a friend) it's all very long drawn out and never really very exciting.
However, Agnes' own problems and beliefs still hold the interest. "It's Ash Wednesday," she reminds one of the other nuns. "We're supposed to be reflecting on our sins".
"Nonsense, Agnes, it'll take you more than a day for that."
"How well you know me after such a short time."
Agnes isn't happy at the school, having been taken away from helping runaways in London by her remarkably tolerant order. It's not only the order that sounds a bit unlikely, but her immediate superior, the headmistress Sister Philomena, who, describes her own vocation to Agnes, "Joined one order. Over the bloody wall after five years. Out in the world after that. Odd jobs ..... Waste of bloody time ... Had other plans, didn't he (God)? So here I am." Later, she explains how, in Agnes' (frequent) absence she had to take the morning service without much help: "Thought you'd eloped." she said. "You gone, Elias gone, the morning service a wash-out ... I had to do the readings, made a pig's ear of the whole bally show." Do nuns really talk like that?
When the non-believing school chaplain, Father Elias, tells her, "I feel like you. Out of place", she asks him, "What is your God, then?"
Elias looked at her. "God is - "" he began. "God is just Beingness. The charge between atomic particles, the distance between one galaxy and the next." He says he used to pray for people but not now: "False hopes," he said. "I try to avoid them."
"Do you believe in anything at all?" Agnes asks him.
"Hardly anything ... The best we can hope for is to find stillness in the face of suffering."
But this isn't enough for Agnes, and the major interest of the book is how she struggles with her faith and the demands it makes upon her. She certainly resents any control her superiors try to exert over her: "It's as if I'm not trusted to conduct my spiritual life without them supervising it the whole time. I feel like a child again."
"Is that such a bad thing?" asks her old friend and counsellor, Father Julius.
"You didn't know me as a child," she replies.
And she faces up to the ultimate problem of all believers: "You do nothing," she accuses God, " ... in the face of ... the thousand incidents of human tragedy that happen every second in the world. You wait, and You ask us to believe in You, the God of Love." And later she demands, "What the hell do You want us to do? What do You want me to do?" And eventually she realizes, "The greater good is all about accepting what is, rather than ceaselessly striving for what might be ... Maybe happiness isn't what we're here for." She wonders whether she should stay in her order or go off on a world cruise with a dying friend of her father's. It's not every nun who gets this sort of choice - but, in this case, it's all decided for her, if in a rather predictable way.
The Dying Light (1999)
The Dying Light begins well, as do most of Alison Joseph's stories. Sister Agnes has been seconded to Silworth, a really unpleasant South London women's prison, where she struggles to help with a complicated network of muddled, confused relationships (amongst the staff as well as the prisoners). Then there's her old friend Athena who can't make up her mind which of her boyfriends she really prefers, and there's Ian, the probation officer, who's falling in love with a prisoner who happily chats to Jesus. There are also the suspect staff and hangers on at the seedy Pomegranate Seed club, which Agnes seems happy to visit, together with her old friend Athena, even if they find themselves twice the age of the usual clientele.
On top of all that, Agnes' own mother ("a silly, spiteful old woman") is dying in France and when Agnes does go to visit her, her mother seems quite deliberately to refuse to recognise her. With all these interesting characters, it seems a pity that lengthy explanations of what might or might not have happened go on for quite so long, and the grand climax in the subterranean tunnels of the Jubilee Line (specially researched for this book) isn't all that convincing.
Problems certainly pile up for Agnes: "There was Mal remanded in custody, Cliff shot dead, Cally in distress .... There was the mysterious Claire. There was Athena hurtling towards self-destruction. There was Janette. And there was her own mother." Very much an ordinary situation for Agnes, in fact. Then there were the men. "If you ask me," Athena tells her, "men are from some universe so many million light years away they haven't evolved the power of speech at all, and they're still wallowing in mud and grunting at each other."
"It would explain the attraction of football," replies Agnes.
Athena explains that for years she had supposed "that they (men) think like we do, feel like we do. ... Finally I've realised, we can't expect them to have the imagination to even begin, even for one tiny second, to ask themselves how someone else might feel."
Agnes herself remains ambivalent about this, liking some men well enough, but ever mindful of the cruelties of her ex-husband from whom Father Julius had rescued her.
Agnes is prepared to do anything to follow the trail she has set herself, and typically goes off to Merthy Tydfil for a few days without even bothering to tell her order where she is, let alone asking their permission, so as to interview someone she thinks might help her investigations . She is seen at her best when making relationships, as with old Father Julius and Athena, and again comes across as a real and likeable character, who despite constant prayer and attendance at worship, is ever ready to question her own motives and behavior. And, despite everything, she still values her order: "At least it's given me a structure in which to have faith, to believe in myself, probably for the first time in my life".
It's Father Julius who tells her, "I fear for you .... You end up putting yourself in danger, deliberately. You seem to seek out some downward path into dark places and then you follow it. And each time, you check with me before you go .... Each time I say, don't go. And each time I know you will. But if it's the Lord's voice who calls you, then who am I to argue?" No wonder she constantly turns to him.
The Night Watch (2000)
In The Night Watch ,Sister Agnes works only part-time at the hostel, as, rather surprisingly, she has been asked to act as novice mistress to two novices who seem to start, at least, with a much more certain faith than she has. The result: one ends up "in total crisis, the other's in the nick (prison)."Then there's Father Julius' old friend Patrick Kavanagh, one of three brothers. The other two are the mentally handicapped Tad, a well-drawn and sympathetic figure, and Mathias who is killed (murdered?) in a riding accident when he is apparently hit by a stray golfball. Agnes pieces together connections between the victims and local landowners that are not obvious to other people. As Father Julius tells her, she is good at "seeing meaning in things, in random events. Seeing patterns". But she can't help worrying that perhaps everything is random and "that even with God all these things might be meaningless. ... for all we know, the universe may be quite meaningless, a collection of particles, gas and dust, and all the events we experience may have no meaning, not only to us, but in some kind of absolute sense ... The problem is I'm turning into an atheist". This makes it very difficult for her to offer any encouragement to the novices, one of whom finds out the hard way that God doesn't simply answer prayers in the way she had fervently believed.
Agnes becomes increasingly curious and concerned about a long-ago love affair involving her old friend and advisor Father Julius, when he'd still been in seminary in Ireland, the memory of which seems to make him very disturbed and unhappy. Had he been right to leave his girl and pursue a career in the church? And Agnes also has to decide her own future: should she take her final vows or go off to live in the house in Provence that she inherited when her mother died, and where she'd grown up "in a childhood of affluence mixed with neglect"? So there's a lot going on in this book, even if Agnes' own hesitations about her faith are similar to those voiced in previous episodes.
Agnes herself is described by Father Julius as a "danger addict". She has little peace of mind: "For me, there's only doubt. And struggle. And a sense of falling short." When asked by the novice Helen why she's still in the order, she explains, "What's kept me here all the years, is that I am here. That's all." Meanwhile she can go off to meet her old friend Athena in the nearest wine bar. But the basic religious questions remain: Is religious belief really any more than "just chemical reactions in the brain?"
When it comes to the evil in the world, her novice Helen asks, "What does he (God) think that he's doing? Like, did he just wind up his creation all those centuries ago and leave it to run, then bugger off and do something more interesting? Because if this is the best he can do, it's pretty poor, really, isn't it?" These are the questions that seem to preoccupy the writer and grow more and more important from book to book. But there can be no easy solution for Agnes. In the end she realizes, that for her there can be "no leap into faith .... Not just yet. No big gamble. Just the steady, daily acceptance that this is how it is, that this is how my story continues to unfold. And it took Helen, who's all those years younger than me to say it. That it's fragile and difficult and uncertain, yet you stay anyway."
The Darkening Sky (2004)
In The Darkening Sky Sister Agnes is working in an addiction centre near her home. She'd taken the job partly because "it meant she could stay in her little Bermondsey flat in solitude, instead of having to return to the community house in Hackney". A dried-out alcoholic is stabbed in a street brawl and dies in hospital. As Agnes tells her friend Athena over their usual glass(es) of wine: "We arrange a basic funeral, and there's a 'sort of' brother who appears from nowhere, and now this posh coffin. I think it's very strange." But it's not long before she begins to find this man, Alasdair Brogan, attractive. So when he asks for her help in looking into the murder, what can she do but agree?
She sets out to find his attacker and gets involved in a group of ex- servicemen and others who'd originally grown up together on a Glasgow estate. It's all gets very long drawn-out and confusing as suggested in the following passage in which Agnes tries to explain the plot so far to Athena: "There's poor Mitch, yes, who was found holding the broken bottle. But, you see, we went to see this woman, Jeanie recognized her. There's a group of men from Scotland who Andy and Alasdair grew up with, and one of them rented a flat near here, and now his wife's joined him, and another bloke called Sean who Alastair knew. But Alasdair was wondering what the Scottish lot, as he calls them, are doing in London, and so near where Andy was living, apart from looking for work which he said they might be quite legitimately doing, except as Gordon said, why are they so near the hostel, and Janet came to find Andy on the night that he died, except she lied when I asked her, and she spoke to Jeanie, who's frightened of her dealer and that's another problem I should be addressing really. And Gordon's going to come and see Aladair and me this afternoon..."
Athena must have been relieved when all this was interrupted by Agnes' phone ringing. I'm sure the author meant this confused outburst to be amusing, which it is, but I found the whole plot to be a little like this: over-complicated with its development slowed down by all the lengthy conversations. Even the jokey one above is just a little self-indulgent.
Meanwhile Agnes really has to decide her future : should she take her final vows even though this would mean giving up the lovely house she has inherited in Provence? Her superior, Sister Christiane, reassures her, "You are a valued member of the community. More to the point, I am not aware that you have expressed any doubts about your vocation." How little she knows!
Then Father Julius is diagnosed with cancer. He eventually admits to her that he is "absolutely terrified". Agnes feels she cannot live without him and is distraught: "Pray for me, Julius had said to her. Yes, she'd said, of course. And now there were no words. Only tears. And rage. And silence." Then later she tries to reassure him about the forthcoming exploratory operation on his colon: " 'Julius, it will be all right.' Agnes heard the empty certainty of her words, and her eyes swelled with tears.
'Yes, to be sure." Julius stared into his mug of tea. 'All will be well, as Julian of Norwich tells us.' He looked up and met Agnes' gaze. 'But the way it feels to me now, none of this feels like any kind of Divine Plan. This feels like chaos, and mess, and terror. I find myself saying, this can't be happening to me. As if I deserve something different, something better. As if I've gone into someone else's life by mistake, and that poor bugger is having a hell of a time.'
'Julius -' she looked at him. 'Julius, you're not alone.'
'Oh, but I am. That's what seems to be the hardest thing of all.' "
All this is written with an intensity that is really moving, and seems to suggest the author's own personal involvement in the situation. It forms a strange contrast with all the unlikely complexities of the main plot, complete with the required melodramatic but not very exciting finale, and seems to belong to another, much more real world. It is Julian who finally admits, "I've stared into a black pit of emptiness. Death, pure and simple. Ending." But, sinful human beings though we are, while we're alive we can love. "That's our salvation, even if it's only here, only in this earthly life." Is this really a Catholic priest or the author speaking?
Let the last word be with Agnes: ''O Lord, my hope is in you,' she thought. The thinnest, most fragile hope, she thought. But hope all the same." Then, true to form, she follows her acceptance into her order with a champagne reception. Believe that, and you'll believe the whole plot.
Shadow of Death (2007 )
Shadow of Death sees Agnes helping to sort out the old library of the nearly defunct Order in Bermondsey before the building is sold. Amongst the piles of tatty Victoriana and mawkish lives of the saints is the seventeenth century Hawker archive, a collection of beautifully preserved books on spells and magic as well as some hand-written journals, telling the story of some of those who had previously lived in the house.
But there are also references to a magic crystal which seems to be attracting the interest of two competing potential buyers, including the sinister but superficially charming cult leader, Pastor Malcolm. Agnes then discovers an abandoned little girl who subsequently disappears, along with one of the nuns. Agnes goes on to find the little girl's dead mother lying out on the steps. And all the time she seems to hear strange sounds (a barking dog and the sound of someone crying) in the old building. It's as though she could feel the history below the house "seeping through the cracks".
It makes a strong story, told in a very realistic and interesting way. But there is more to it than that: there's an ever-present questioning of the existence or not of a loving God. The absurdity of such a belief is frequently stressed by another occupant of the building, Dr Philip Sayer, who is a psychiatrist with a disturbed and depressed wife, Serena, who, he tells Agnes, "seems to think there is an old man in the sky who has plans for her. She prays to him .... it is part of her illness". As for himself, "I work in a world of evidence, you see. It's at the heart of my work. I'm a scientist .... It's all about proof." Faith, on the other hand, he says, "is believing in something you know can't possibly be true".
Later on, Agnes asks him, "If you're just a random bit of dust hurtling through space - what's the point?"
"There may not be one.. At least I'm not telling myself fairy tales."
"But if the fairy tales make us aspire to something more, allowing us to be greater than we are -"
"You're kidding yourself. What about suicide bombers? Look at what they learn from their fairy tales .... " And so it goes on. Agnes finds it difficult to argue. She knows that "Some of the best Christians I've ever met have been atheists" and tells him, "If I felt it was possible for me to live in your rational, godless world, then I would ... I can only say, 'All I know is what I believe.' "She tells Father Julius that "sometimes people's idea of God drives them to behave very badly".
"But that's not true belief," Julius stirred his spoon round in his mug. "If we create God in our own image, then we create a false god. All the wisdom of our tradition warns against it. God doesn't want us to be unquestioning." Agnes' own faith, of course, is still far from secure. She comes across as a very real person, as when, despite her vow of poverty, she does not enjoy "cheap cornflakes and instant coffee" but still appreciates a good glass (or two) of wine.
There is plenty of action to sustain the interest, and only once (when Malcolm suddenly produces a gun) is it in danger of descending into melodrama. It ends with Agnes possibly having to give up some of her prized independence. "Are you really going back to live in the convent?" asks her friend Athena.
"I'm afraid so."
"You could always pray for it," Athena said. "Put in a word up there that you'd really like to live on your own again."
Agnes laughed. "But - but it doesn't work like that."
"Doesn't work like that? I thought He was supposed to be omnipotent. Well, I I don't know, " Athena pursed her lips. "There don't seem to be many perks in this religion business."
But the non-believing Athena does pray for her - and Agnes does get her flat back. As Athena points out to her, "Your God isn't going to be petty or small-minded, is he? I mean, if he gets a prayer from some hopeless non-believer like me, he's still going to be charitable about it, isn't he?"
Agnes clinked her glass with Athena's. "Well, she said, "if I had half your hopeless non-believer's faith I'd be a much better nun." As it is, she confides to another nun, ""I haven't the faintest idea about God. I have an inkling that God is love. That's the closest I get."
Then right at the end old Father Julius tells her, "People who believe in magic, they're expecting answers .... We're different. We know there are no answers. We're ahead of the game." It's no easy faith for either him or Agnes. Recommended.
A Violent Act (2008)
A Violent Act describes how Sister Agnes, who, although she has now taken her final vows as a member of the convent, is happy to escape from its oppressive confines by returning to her own flat, working for the Order's hostel for the homeless. But then Abbie, a young and vulnerable resident, is found dead. It looks like suicide, but questions are raised about the mysterious drug dealer Murchison's influence over Abbie and the other young hostel dwellers. Ånd what about the increasingly sinister Dr Kitson, some of whose patients seem to die so unexpectedly?
Meanwhile Agnes is plagued by doubts about her own motivation in becoming a nun. Was it just to run away from real life? And she finds she has other problems too when she meets the intriguing American geologist Dr Bretton Laing ("Most people call me Brett") and learns about about her solitary and eccentric father's last years and his increasing preoccupation with creationist ideas.
The most interesting parts of the story are those dealing with these creationist ideas and the interplay between Agnes and her old friends, the entertaining Athena (busy planning to get married), and Father Julius who had been seriously ill. "I caught a glimpse of death, in those weeks," he tells her, "and now I know, more clearly than I have ever known, what it is to cling to life." It is he who tells her, "I prefer evolution (to creationism). as a model of God's intervention, I mean. Adam having to name the animals, for example. It puts us in a very odd relationship with God. I'd rather that God did it. I don't see what's so funny," he added, as Agnes began to laugh.
"I'm not sure that is the true Darwinian view of evolution," she said. "God naming the animals rather than Adam."
"Oh," he said. "Darwin. Yes. Well ..." He picked up his glass and took a sip. "It's all stories, isn't it? I mean, there are different ways to tell a story, aren't there? ... As an account of our relationship with God, one might say there's a great deal of truth about the story of Adam and Eve."
The author faces up to real issues about suffering and belief and Agnes is certainly one to avoid glib answers. She struggles, for example, to find a hospice to look after a woman dying of cancer who wants to escape from her bullying husband, and she is not afraid to stand up to him either.
It is an American nun, Louisa, who is thinking of leaving the Order, who tells her, "My spiritual director lent me a book a month or two ago. I think she had a sense that I was struggling. And there was a line in it that came to mind this morning in Chapel, during the reading ... it was all about meeting Jesus in the Gospels. Walking with him ... you know that stuff. I suddenly thought, but we don't, do we? We don't meet Jesus, or God, or Our Lady, or anyone. It's all just stories. And I don't mind that. As stories go with they're pretty good - but to give up your whole life for a story? It gets like believing in fairies. At best it is wishful thinking, at worst it seems to me it's self-deception."
"But," replies Agnes, struggling as she does to find her own faith, "surely, surely there is still a truth behind the stories. A real, living truth."
Unfortunately the least effective part of the book is the main storyline involving the hostel residents and their contacts. Their characters are less clearly established, and it is difficult to feel very involved with them. So in the end, solving the murders turns out to be rather less interesting than the author must have hoped.
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