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am 12. August 2003
Mark Salzman reaches a high literary level where he can take the reader to an interesting journey through the -not only religious- life of a cloistered nun. The book is very well written; Without going into too much detail, the author succeeds in giving the reader a clear picture of the personal dilemma of Sister John. The decision between losing her holy visions and losing her health is not an easy one, at least for Sister John. Salzman successfully keeps the reader in the story and forces the reader to make a decision before reading Sister John's decision.
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am 30. Dezember 2005
Rare is the novel that enthralls me sufficiently to warrant reading in a single sitting. Being dyslexic, I am one of the world's slower readers. Being stubborn, I have read more than most. However, this comes because of a large investment of time. I expected 'Lying Awake' to be a four-night, going-to-sleep kind of book. Instead, it kept me in a state indicated by the title -- lying awake. I could not put the book down.
Author Mark Salzman has made a name for himself with books such as 'Iron and Silk' and 'The Soloist'. According to the critical blurbs on the jacket, this book is
'...written with exquisite grace and hailed by critics. This elegant novel plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power--and price--of true faith.'
I had an instant rapport with Sister John - the nun had taken the spiritual name from John of the Cross, best known for his reflections on the dark night of the soul, which factors into the situation for Sister John. She had spent many years hoping for insight, hoping for a feeling, hoping for a sign, hoping for something to let her know with certainty that there is meaning to her life, her call, her sacrifices, and her future.
In the course of regular monastic routines, elaborated in the narrative with skill and subtle insight by Salzman, Sister John begins to sense, to feel, to be aware of the presence of the divine in the ordinary and swiftly-becoming-not-so-ordinary day to day tasks and schedules. Salzman takes us gently back through past experiences of Sister John while slowly teasing out the real causes of Sister John's feelings of the divine presence.
Sister John then has to make a choice. The religious ecstatic experience is in fact a dangerous one. Monasteries throughout the ages have asked prospective members of the community if they are prone to such ecstasies, or if they are looking for them in the confines of the monastic enclosure. Quite frequently, if the answer is yes, the person is not admitted to join the community.
Salzman dispels some myths about monastic life (for example, that joining a monastery is an opportunity to get away from people) while presenting the personalities that populate this Carmelite community. The characters are not saints, as most monastic people are basic human beings. They have interesting quirks, and have a care for each other and the whole. They all have faith, but not a superhuman faith.
The choice (which I shall not reveal, lest the primary plot twist be revealed to the detriment of any reader) is a tough one. The recognition of the danger in the religious ecstasy is faced head-on; Sister John is given the option of stopping the experiences. This poses a threat to her continuing in the community with either choice.
Salzman weaves elements of the liturgical year, the monastic rituals and liturgies, and the hierarchies and hopes of everyday life in a monastery through the plot development. We the readers get to experience something of the cycle of life as well as the break in the routine religious ecstasy can cause (which is yet another aspect of it's problematic nature -- monasteries don't like to have the routine cycles broken).
Given my own tendencies toward monastic life, this book was an instant success in capturing my attention. However, I don't believe that one must have catholic or monastic sensibilities to be able to relate to the characters or situations presented here. Salzman's character development has compassion and depth -- the time Sister John's estranged mother comes to visit, for example, is a masterpiece of description both of the mother's exterior performance and Sister John's interior struggles.
The book is brief (no matter how enthralling, I cannot finish long books in one sitting), but not so brief as to be incomplete or leave matters unaddressed. Salzman has a remarkable concentration and economy with language. The sections are pregnant with meaning that unfolds gradually and methodically, rather like a well-done liturgical dance.
In the end, Sister John does have an answer to her call and prayer. The community continues on its majestic way. With many good and great books, I find myself wishing there was more. Here, however, there is enough. It is complete.
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