Sister Ana

(creator: Panos Karnezis)

Panos Karnezis
Sister Ana is one of six nuns at the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra. She had been moved on from a previous convent where she complained that she had been persecuted. She has an inordinate ambition to become Mother Superior so that she could turn the convent "into a refuge for women who had been ill-treated and those who regretted their sins .... From the day Sister Ana had taken her vows, more than a decade earlier, she had dreamed of being in charge of the convent, which she would make the leading one in the country." But she sees diabolical forces everywhere, and is ready to do anything to get her own way. Still, however unpleasant she is, she is a shrewd observer and it is she who solves the mystery of an abandoned baby.

Panos Karnezis (1967 - ) was born in Greece where he was awarded a degree in mechanical engineering at the university in Patras. He came to England in 1992 and was awarded an Oxford PhD. He worked for British Steel in Bristol and then for Rolls-Royce in Sheffield. He was looking for a hobby and took to writing. He studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He published his first book, Little Infamies, a collection of short stories, in 1992, followed by the novels The Maze in 2004 and The Birthday Party in 2007. He lives in London.

The Convent (2010)
The Convent is set in the crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra in what seems to be the early twenties. The Mother Superior discovers a suitcase punctured with air holes at the entrance to the convent. Inside she finds a baby boy. How did he get there? What should she do with him? Motivated by her own long suppressed feelings of guilt, she becomes more and more determined to keep him. Other guilty secrets are gradually revealed until another of the nuns, the highly unpleasant Sister Ana, is able to deduce where he must have come from.

It makes a lively, moving, and imaginatively told story which holds the interest throughout. You really feel for the Mother Superior, who turns out to have had a very troubled time before taking her vows as a young woman, after which she had asked to be posted to Africa to work in a mission hospital. She has always taken her convent responsibilities very seriously, although her favourite pastime is servicing the convent car, an old Ford. But her life is now totally transformed by the arrival of the infant, and she grows increasingly unbalanced. It is not long before she believes "beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had given birth to the child herself."

Although English is the author's second language, it's all written with a gentle understated humour, as when we're told that the Mother Superior took the convent's one and only novice novice "for long walks in the orchard, and they discussed the creation of the world, how many nails were used to crucify Christ and other important doctrinal matters in between brief rests in the shade to admire the beauty of nature." And the convent library, we are told, was "filled with religious manuscripts and printed books that have not been banned by the Inquisition". Occasionally the phrasing sounds a little stilted, but in a way this matches the strange setting.

Sister Ana vehemently opposes the retention of the child: "You're committing a sin," she tells her Mother Superior. "You know nothing about that child."
"What I know is between God and me."
"Nonsense," Sister Ana said. "You are just a desperate childless woman who has lost her reason." And that is what she tries to tell both the local bishop and the head of her order. She then spots a dog digging up a piece of white cloth which "was stained with blood that had long dried". It was when she concentrated her thoughts and "rearranged the events over and over again in her mind and tried to recall any peculiar incidents that had taken place days, weeks, even months before they had found the child, that "suddenly her eyes opened wide.... Sister Anna had finally solved the mystery of the child in the suitcase". And it is she who eventually realises how her Mother Superior's attitude to the child is shaped, not just because she is "is possessed", but by something in her past.

After all the strange goings-on, the ending seems just a little too simple, but the book is a considerable achievement, even if Sister Ana makes a distinctly odd clerical detective.

There are fragmented video interviews with the author on the BBC New Talent site and some information about him on The British Council Contemporary Writers page, as well as numerous reviews of his books.

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The Convent cover
A strange but arresting cover for a strange but arresting book.
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