Frost In May by Antonia White — book review

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“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?”

After converting to Catholicism, nine year old Nanda Gray is sent by her father to the Convent of Five Wounds. Although Nanda is open to the teachings of her new religion, life at the convent is not easy. Alongside the other girls Nanda has to adhere the strict rules and routines imposed by the nuns. The girls are discouraged from forming friendships as these are ‘against charity’ and lead to ‘dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling’. Their conducts are constantly monitored, so much so that the girls have few occasions in which they can simply ‘be’. While Nanda comes to regard her convent as her home, and does try her best not to disobey the nuns, she also questions their authority.
Antonia White articulates beautifully Nanda’s desire to nurture her own individuality. Although Nanda cannot always make sense of her discontentment towards the constraining atmosphere of the convent, her indefinite and contrasting feelings are rendered with incredible empathy and attention.
White also captures a particular phase of growing up, that passage from childhood to adolescence. While Nanda does experience idyllic moments and grows fond of two other girls, she can’t quite reconcile herself with the convent’s ideal of femininity. Yet, she also craves acceptance—from her father, the nuns—and, however unsuccessfully, she does attempt to iron out her personality.
The way in which the nuns inculcate notions of evil and guilt into Nanda and the other girls can be upsetting. Not only that but every day the girls are subjected to or witness to humiliations and psychological punishments. Thankfully, Nanda’s ‘forbidden’ friendships alleviate the mood of the novel.
White’s dramatisation of her own time in a convent makes for a compelling read as her examination of Catholicism is both interesting and illuminating.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis – book review

I guess that I’m but a fickle creature: I saw and fell for the cover of this novella (the neon colours, the pose of the model, the simple font…I was a goner).
Sadly the actual inside of Dolores has little in common with its fantastic cover design.

Written in a prose that manages to be both sickly and apathetic, this novella isn’t all that concerned on mapping out Dolores’ psyche and turmoils (yes, its title is rather misleading), rather it devotes itself to create a gallery of intentionally repulsive bodies.
Curtis’ writing style had this sticky quality that can at times have an almost nauseating effect on the reader. Rather than using this aspect of her prose to create atmosphere or render the novella’s setting (which actually takes place in part in an unmade country, and later on in what should be Spain…but could be any place in particular) it often goes to emphasise our discomfort towards the various characters populating this story.
These characters are often introduced to us in terms of their physical flaws: we have Dolores who is possibly ‘big’ or ‘voluptuous’ (other characters praise or ridicule her for her ‘largeness’ but we never get a description of her actual body), the nuns have all crooked teeth or misshapen jaws/faces. They are made to be repulsive, to inspire a sense of abjection in us. These characters’ are defined by their ‘repugnant‘ bodies, they do not seem to possess actual personalities or a sense of self, but rather they are little more empty shells made to disgust us.
This obsession with ‘the body‘ and its functions was tedious. Curtis seemed to go out of her way to stress the ugliness of her characters. The nuns shower once a week, and apparently that makes them filthy. Given that they do little work outside, and they are covered head to toes, isn’t an exaggeration to make it seem as if washing once a week would have them in such a state?
There were many instances when Curtis’ descriptions seemed gratuitous , especially since the narrative seemed to almost gleefully revel in detailing the inadequacies of the human body. And to dedicated a whole novel to the fallacies of our bodies is a bit much.

Dolores doesn’t have a voice. She does some things, but we never know what impels her to do what she does. What did she actually think of those Love Hotels? Was she having sex because she enjoyed it or did she feel pressured to became sexually active? What did she think of her pregnancy? I have no idea!
That this novella doesn’t bother to develop its central character is somewhat frustrating. Dolores seemed reduced to her ‘large’ body, as if that vague description equated a personality.
The majority of male characters want to use, and possibly abuse, Dolores…and sadly I have no idea of the way in which that affected her. Did she even realise that she was being manipulated? Or was she the one exercising some form of control over them during their encounters? This detachedness is never clearly explored, rather we are made to be content with a character who is as responsive as a rag doll.
Additionally, he novella fails to explore the possibility of there being a language/cultural divide between Dolores and the nuns. The setting of the story is completely murky, so much so that throughout the narrative there was no sense of place or time.
There is no heart in this story nor in its characters. The narrative is so concerned with making its characters as repelling as possible that it completely forgets to endow them with even a speck of personality.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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