Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of nuns, they think of convents or cloisters, the wearing of habits, or perhaps religious school teachers they may have had. But the fact is, today’s nuns don’t all have that kind of life. To get a sense of what life is like for a lot of modern nuns, let’s turn the spotlight today on Alison Joseph’s The Dying Light, the fifth in her Sister Agnes Bourdillon series.
Sister Agnes has been seconded to Silworth, a London women’s prison, to serve in its Roman Catholic chaplaincy. She’s gotten to know some of the inmates and tries to work with them as best she can. Then one inmate Cally Fisher gets the news that her father Cliff has been shot. The police suspect Cally’s boyfriend Mal is responsible, and it doesn’t help his case that he’s been in trouble with the police several times. What’s more, Cliff didn’t like Mal and tried to keep him away from Cally. Still, Cally claims her boyfriend is innocent. As she can’t do much to clear his name, she asks Sister Agnes to help.
Agnes isn’t an experienced police officer, but she does take her spiritual duties, not to mention her ethical duty to Cally, very seriously. She knows that it took a great effort for Cally to trust enough to ask for help, and she doesn’t want to rupture that bond. Besides, if Mal isn’t guilty, he shouldn’t go to prison. So she begins to ask some questions. The first task is of course getting the people involved in the case to trust her enough to talk to her. And that’s not easy, as Cally’s friends, fellow inmates and family members aren’t particularly forthcoming. But little by little, Agnes learns more about Cliff.
And what she learns leads her to believe that there are several people who might have shot him. As she looks at Cliff’s personal relationships and business dealings, she sees that this is more than a case of ‘angry boyfriend shoots girlfriend’s father.’ Then there’s another murder. Now there’s a distinct possibility that the two killings are related. So Agnes will need to work quickly to find out who the killer is. And in the end, she discovers that the killings have everything to do with past relationships and family history.
Family history is also at the forefront in the other plot thread of this novel. Agnes gets word that her mother, who lives in France, is ill, perhaps fatally so. The two have a badly damaged relationship, so Agnes has mixed feelings about the news. Still, she feels obliged to go to France and gets leave from her order to do so. In the course of her short visits there, Agnes learns some surprising truths about herself, her mother and her family background.
Many of the scenes in the novel take place in the prison, so readers get a sense of what a modern UK woman’s prison is like. There’s the daily routine of prison life, the conflicts (some of them serious) among the inmates, the bureaucracy of visits, the parole process and so on. As we get to know some of the inmates, we also see some of the circumstances of life that have brought them there. Each one has a different history, and through their stories, readers get a sense of what prisoners are like as individuals. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that some of the inmates’ stories are connected to the mystery, so their backstories add to the overall novel.
We also get a look at the lives of the people who work with them. For instance, one of the people Agnes works with is Ian Marsden, a parole officer who’s worked with several of the inmates. He feels deeply the frustration of not being able to help all of the people on his roster, and chafes at the limits to what he can do. There’s also Eleanor, the prison governor. She does her best to help the women in her charge, but she also has a prison to run.
And then there’s Agnes herself. Far from a conventional Roman Catholic nun, she has her own ideas about spirituality, prayer, and religion. She doesn’t behave in ways most people associate with nuns, either. She goes out with her friend Athena, she smokes once in a while, she enjoys a drink, and she wears street clothes. In fact at one point, Ian asks her,
‘Are there many nuns like you?’
‘I hope not. One of me’s enough for any order.’
Agnes spent her childhood in France, and as fans of this series will know, left a violent and abusive husband with the help of her friend Father Julius, who makes several appearances in this novel as well. It was after that that she decided to enter the convent. She is spiritual in her own way, but at the same time, she’s both practical and pragmatic. And those traits turn out to be very useful in the prison setting, where the inmates are not much interested in traditional views of religion.
For all that though, Agnes does respect the requirements of her order. She attends chapel services, she goes where her order sends her, and she (usually) does what her Mother Superior expects. Although she doesn’t always adhere to the ‘letter of the law,’ you can’t really call her a rebel or a maverick.
Agnes struggles with her relationship with her mother. Although she feels a sense of duty, she also knows how difficult her mother is (and she is!). There’s a long history of pain between the two, and Agnes has suffered from it. But she isn’t obsessed with it, or with her former husband, and readers who are tired of demon-haunted protagonists will appreciate the fact that Agnes goes on with her life.
A good deal of the novel takes place at the prison. But there are several scenes that take place in other parts of London, so readers get a sense of that city as well:
‘She [Agnes] walked fast, crossing Bermondsey Street, past the excavation site at London Bridge, then skirting Southwark Cathedral to the embankment.’
Agnes sees parts of London that the tourists never get to see, and couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else.
The Dying Light is the story of the way family pasts can catch up, and what happens when they do. It features an ‘inside look’ at a woman’s prison and the lives of those who live and work there. It also features an unusual sort of nun who lives out her religious calling as best she can in a very imperfect world. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dying Light? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 3 November/Tuesday 4 November – The Suspect – Michael Robotham
Monday 10 November/Tuesday 11 November – A Duty to the Dead – Charles Todd
Monday 17 November/Tuesday 18 November – The House Without a Key – Earl Der Biggers