This was a Christmas present from Dom and he knew he was going out on a limb buying me a book that wasn’t on my wish list. But he’d seen it recommended somewhere and knows I’m up for trying new things. The following is a bit choppy as I sat down and wrote notes on what I was reading at several different points during the course of the novel.
The narrator is a middle-aged Canadian novelist, a single woman living alone. (Although she steadfastly refuses to identify her location, saying she lives somewhere in the western world, this attempt to make the narrator is remarkably ineffective as it is glaringly obvious she lives in Canada. I’m not sure why the pretense.) One day the Virgin Mary appears in her living room wearing a cardigan and trainers (sneakers to those of us south of the border) and pulling a little black suitcase with a handle. This is not so much an apparition as a visitation. Mary announces that she’s tired and needs a vacation and asks if she might stay for a week. The narrator installs her in the guest bedroom and they soon become quite friendly, drinking tea together and sharing in the household chores.
As I’ve read I’ve been very uncertain about whether I was going to ultimately like it or not. A novel about a Marian apparition written by a non-believer who is nonetheless open to the possibility that such things really happen. The worldview is very alien to me—though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While in the novel Mary is quite real, she is also presented very differently than she would be were the novel written by a faithful Catholic. And it feels very uneven and inconsistent. For example, the book’s Mary is very down to earth and corporeal. She shares the narrator’s meals and borrows her shampoo and uses a phone card to make long distance calls on her phone. But then the narrator is surprised when the neighbors can see Mary when they go for a walk. That felt like an odd note.
I’m alternately quite put off and charmed. On minute I’m thinking that the novel’s version of Mary is just so wrong. And then there’s little bits like this:
In a few more minutes we were home. In the time it had taken to walk around the block, not more than half an hour by my watch, I had come to feel that spending time with the Virgin Mary was, if not quite something I had been doing all my life, then at least something I had been expecting or intending to do all along.
There’s something so right in that sentiment that it makes me quite like the book. At times it’s the very strangeness with which the novel portrays Mary that makes it so endearing. There’s something childlike and naive about the way the narrator approaches her that I do find appealing.
Chapters of narration are interspersed with chapters of “History” in which the narrator relates some of the tales she’s uncovered during her research on Mary and Marian apparitions. She recounts the stories of various Marian apparitions around the world: Our Lady of the Pillar, Our Lady of Walsingham, a vision of St Anthony of Padua, of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of La Salette and many many more, proving this is a well-researched book. These anecdotes are interspersed with the narrator’s reflections about history, about the nature of fact and fiction, about faith and doubt and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
As I read what seemed to me most sad is that much of the time the seeking after knowledge about Mary does not seem to have led the narrator to an increased knowledge of or even increased curiosity about her Son. At times Mary even seems to be a sort of goddess figure rather than a mediatrix. When recounting the story of Our Lady of Good Counsel Mary’s language seems off to me. Of the villagers who at first doubted the apparition Mary says: “They were remorseful, repentant, begging me for forgiveness and a second chance. I did not have the heart to punish them. I let them have their church, I let them have their miracles.” Here it seems that Mary appears on her own behalf and not that of her divine Son.
Though near the end the book does pick up the question of doubt and faith and a chapter called ‘Doubt’ takes up the theme of the problem of evil. This passage in particular made me think that perhaps there was hope for the book after all:
Sometimes all I want is for someone to tell me that everything is going to be all right. I want someone to tell me this over and over again in a sweet but firm voice, the way you would tell a young child sobbing in the dark after a nightmare about a hairy green monster under the bed. I want someone to tell me this often enough to banish my doubts and make me believe it.
For all these years, I had thought of doubt and faith as mutually exclusive opposites. Also faith and reason, faith and despair, faith and fear. I had thought that as long as I still had doubts, I coud not have faith. For all these years, I had assumed that God did not want to hear from me until I had resolved my doubts and vanquished my uncertainty.
But that Thursday night in April with the Virgin Mary sleeping in the room next door, it suddenly occurred to me that I was wrong. Maybe this endless internal monologue need not be a monologue at all. Maybe it was meant to be a dialogue. Perhaps, for all these years, I had not needed to be talking to myself. Perhaps, for all these years, I could have been talking to God. Perhaps that night, when I thought I was thinking, really I was praying. Maybe I had been praying all along.
Perhaps it was more important to ask these questions than to have all the answers. Perhaps God was just as interested in hearing about my doubts as anything else. I finally understood that just as, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, a system is changed by the observer, so I, too, was being changed forever by asking the questions in the first place. I finally understood that my uncertainty and my doubt were gifts that made me the perfect candidate for faith.
In the last few chapters I found the narrative to be rather unsatisfactory. The story shifts from being about Mary to being about the narrator as she shifts into confessional mode and tells Mary the story of her life. But the narrator decides that the details don’t matter, she only tells her story in the vaguest form and most of the narrative thread seems lost amidst more musings about the nature of narrative, of truth. She says cryptic things like: “I am neither the victim nor the villain of this story,” that don’t seem to be explained by the narrative.
And here’s the trouble with truth: it is disorganized, plotless, unsatisfying, often unbelievable, apparently pointless, sometimes boring, and it frequently amounts to much ado about nothing.
Thinking about truth too long and too hard leads me into a metaphysical labyrinth where I experience a kind of panicky paralysis, where I realize that every single thought I have ever had or pushed away, every single word I have ever whispered or shouted, every single sentence I have ever written or deleted could just as well be false and that, if the truth were known, I might be, after all, the consummate unreliable narrator.
I just don’t find this unreliable narrator to be a compelling character. She doesn’t spin a yarn that draws me in. Instead her thoughts spin round and round, never seeming to get her anywhere.
In the end she says she both is and isn’t the same person she was when she began. She says she doesn’t know how the story will end. I’m not a big fan of the uncertainty. On the one hand, she’s got Mary working in her life and she’s on a new trajectory. On the other hand, her version of Mary seems rather distant from Christ. She’s a sort of comfortable intermediary stage that doesn’t seem to overly challenge the narrator to radically change her life. I think that’s ultimately what bugs me. She’s comfortable. And while I expect Mary to be comforting, I don’t necessarily think her place in my life is to make me feel comfortable with who I am and where I am. Right now I feel about as ambivalent about the novel as the narrator seems to feel about her faith. I suppose that’s about the best reaction such a story could expect.
One word of warning to anyone thinking of taking up this novel: there is an incredibly graphic passage that has to do with female genital mutilation.