A few more thoughts on the novel, which I wrote a bit of first thoughts about yesterday.
I’ve known women abused, traumatized (by priests, by husbands, by fathers) for whom religious things are a trigger, a door opening to the wide gulfs of anxiety, panic, horror. I know people for whom confession triggers massive anxiety. For others, Mass itself. I don’t know what that’s like firsthand, but I know what it’s like to listen to a friend struggling with these overwhelming reactions.
Imagine that: going to Mass ignites your greatest terror and carries you to that place you do not want to go. Imagine the very places that God draws closest to us being places that make you panic, fill you with dread. Imagine having to white knuckle Mass, or running out because no matter how much you love Jesus and want to be there, your body betrays you and you simply cannot stay. Because of abuse, because of trauma, because of our fallen human state… these roadblocks can keep us from God through no fault of our own.
For Lise, the protagonist of Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, it is the rosary. She cannot bring herself to say it. She barely can make herself touch it— not without shuddering. And yet she cannot avoid it. It’s a part of the Dominican habit. She wears it at her waist. More, the rosary is given to her as part of her name in religious life: Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire, Sister Mary Elizabeth of the Rosary. And yet when the new priest asks her if she has a particular devotion to the rosary her “no” is brusque, almost rude. That exchange happens in the first pages of the novel, it takes a long time before the reader understands exactly why she reacts that way.
In a way you could say that the novel is a story about Lise’s relationship with the rosary. Or you could say that the rosary is the key which unlocks her story. I don’t want to spoil the ending of the novel, but the journey the rosary takes, which we first see in the novel’s prologue, is so beautiful. The end brings us back to the beginning and we know it for the first time, see it through new eyes.
The way to heal from trauma is not to avoid memory and the things that trigger it, but to confront it. So Lise cannot avoid the rosary and the memories it triggers nor the person it reminds her of. Christ is the healer, yes, but the trauma is human and Lise must face it down in a very human way and that story, that intertwining of the human and the divine, is what makes this a masterful novel.
Godden’s story is never mawkishly pious, never sentimental. Rather, like the rosary its namesake, it partakes of both joy and sorrow and also a foretaste of glory. Even though the novel never uses the language of trauma, abuse, etc, I think it’s deeply insightful.