Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy

I finished reading Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy last night. It’s a beautiful novel but I’m not sure what I have to say about it. This was my second read through and the thing that connected with me most unexpectedly this time was not the religious life and the protagonist’s mystical experiences– though I did find them very moving and very much a help to me as I begin Lent.

But this time through, near the beginning of the novel I had an unexpected moment of recognition, or maybe not recognition so much as making a new connection between two things. I’m pretty sure that when I last read this book I hadn’t read much on the subject of human trafficking. But now I have. Or I’m more sensitive to it? In any case through flashbacks we learn that the protagonist, Lise, is an orphan raised by her aunt, that she’s British, and that she originally came to France as a young woman at the end of the second world war. She was a driver for an American officer and after the allies had liberated Paris the city is going crazy. They find they can’t drive to their destination because the streets are too crazy, so they park the car in an alley and then split up. Lise is given over the the charge of a young officer (corporal?) who has a slip of paper with the address of the women’s quarters she’s supposed to stay at. They get separated in the crowd, she ends up drinking and celebrating with various people she meets on the street, and ends up drunk in a fountain where she’s discovered by Patrice who takes her home with him and seduces her.

This time as I read I saw how she’s an almost stereotypical victim of human trafficking: she’s a foreigner, she’s an orphan, she’s alone in a strange country, she’s young, she’s drunk. She stays with Patrice and eventually he reveals that the ‘nightclub’ downstairs belongs to him and is really a brothel and he expects her to work there. Eventually she ends up not being a worker, but being the manager, in charge of the girls who ‘work’ there.

Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy could easily be a grim book, there’s child abuse, human trafficking, prostitution, drugs, murder, suicide, etc. And Rumer Godden’s treatment of them feels unsentimental, un-prettied-up. And yet also full of compassion. The mission of the Dominican sisters of Bethanie is to accompany women as Christ calls us to: especially to visit those in prison, and to invite those prisoners to consider whether they have a vocation to the religious life. And yet only two sisters visit prisons four times a year. The main focus of the order is that of any cloistered (semi-cloistered?) community: work and prayer. Hard work on the farm, and making things to sell. Time spent daily in prayer: communal praying the hours five times a day plus time for daily adoration.

In it’s way it has many of the same elements I loved in her earlier novel about religious life. In This House of Brede. But here the brokenness and healing comes to the fore. Lise is a mystic, in Bethanie she finds her true home. And yet her past won’t leave her alone. She must find ways to redeem it. And she does. And that is, perhaps, the most beautiful part of the story. Several times I found myself crying at the beauty of those redemptive trasnformations. And how Godden makes the religious life seem vital and necessary to the modern world, not a relic of a irrelevant past.

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