Panos Karnezis’s The Convent is a different sort of literary pseudo-mystery. Usually, if there’s a baby in a convent, the focus is on figuring out who the mother is among the nuns. Karnezis manages to create a story that pulls the focus off that end, making the eventual reveal more honest and enjoyable than a more direct hunt for the mother would be.
The first thing I have to say is that The Convent is beautifully written. His description has a wonderful quality of being detailed without pushing through the reader’s ability to imagine the location on their own, which I love. The characters’ behaviors are strongly depicted, their actions at once predictable and surprising.
Karnezis only has us follow a couple of characters throughout the book, which makes the eventual end of the story more interesting. The Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, is the main character. She is a complex women, with a sad past that colors her reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby on the doorstep of the convent. The baby, enclosed in a ventilated suitcase, is seen by her as a sign from God. Karnezis uses her to explore the lengths to which a person can go due to their beliefs, no matter how misguided. He does this well, but I also felt that some of her behavior is stretched to the almost-unbelievable, especially her behavior after being attacked by a dog in the yard of the convent.
We occasionally get to see into the mind of Sister Ana, Sister María Inés’ main antagonist. Her mental state is about as unsettled as the Mother Superior’s, but she seems to have no reason to be so suspicious and mistrustful of almost everyone. A little more about her background would be wonderful.
The last character we get to know is Bishop Estrada, the man who oversees the convent. Living far away, he visits occasionally and is a mostly-benevolent presence in the nuns’ lives. He plays an instrumental role on what happens to the baby. He is a voice of reason and moderation for the nuns, but is not without his own personal motives.
These characters shape our understanding of the world of the book. This leads to a surprising climax and interesting denouement, which I rather enjoyed. The early revelation of the Mother Superior’s secret makes one feel that the story is about her, especially since we follow her so closely. And, in a way, it is about her and her reaction to the arrival of the child. But it is the story that is hidden in the end that is truly interesting to me, mostly because it’s about people who struggle to maintain their faith when faced with temptation and how they deal with the consequences.
It’s this story that is infinitely more interesting to me than the increasingly unhinged behavior of Sister María Inés and Sister Ana. The friction between them, and their actions, feel too extreme to me to make The Convent more than a good story written excellently.