‘The Convent’ by Maureen McCarthy
When I hit upon a book that :
a) Is a good story that keeps you interested and eagerly awaiting developments
b) deals with social issues relevant and close to your own heart
c) is set in a familiar location where you have spent time and is therefore recognizable
d) has an historical bent
then as far as I’m concerned I am onto a winner.
I was handed such a book just last week. ‘The Convent’ by Maureen McCarthy is a young adult novel published last year by Allen and Unwin.
Recently I have come to the conclusion that some of the best writing is actually produced for younger people. For some reason in YA novels the issues are clearer and more realistic or perhaps I have become lazy and need my literature to be easily accessible. On the other hand perhaps I haven’t yet left teen age. But seriously, I would strongly recommend adult readers to browse through the YA section in your library; it’s not all about vampires and werewolves. Or better still go to the CBCA website (www.cbca.org ) and look up the past few years of notables and shortlisted books for older readers. This is a fail-safe guide and you won’t be disappointed. Take ‘Kill the Possum’ by James Maloney or ‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey to name just two.
But back to ‘The Convent’. The action and the several stories intertwined in ‘The Convent’ take place at the Abbotsford Convent which is situated next door to the Collingswood Children’s Garden in Melbourne. I know this place, having visited the garden one afternoon on a family outing ending with afternoon tea at a very trendy coffee shop, probably the actual one described in the book. Today the elegant but still faintly daunting buildings are a far cry from the sad and tortured past enclosed within its wall and for many visitors completely unknown or just forgotten.
Based to a degree on McCarthy’s own family history and involving the issues which led to the recent political apologies to women whose illegitimate or ‘fatherless’ children were forcibly removed from them, the stories of Sadie, Ellen, Cecelia and Peach emerge stark and poignant.
Issues of women’s rights are prominent but the patronizing, sometimes inhumane, attitudes adopted by society and especially the Catholic Church come into play as well, as do the intriguing issues of faith, belief in a God and religious dedication.
McCarthy deftly maneuvers between her central characters, the different eras in which they live and the vastly differing social climates in which each lives, but she still manages to keep all the different components related and connected.
This is definitely a book for girls, but in 2013 when statistics are showing that women’s rights and equality are actually declining this is a book which is a timely and important reminder of what went on before and startlingly not so long ago.
And since I happen to be in Melbourne as I write this, I will be revisiting Abbotsford convent again at the weekend but this time with a lot more understanding and a more profound appreciation of, and more appropriate anguish about, the history of the building and its former occupants.