Coteau Books, May 2009, 213 pp, Paperback $18.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Mary Frances Coady’s The Practice of Perfection is an intriguing and well-written collection of associated short stories. The setting for these stories is a cloistered 1950s convent. The stories are saturated with the heavy burdens of the Catholic Church that many of us have known either directly or vicariously. Coady’s brilliant language – exhibited in both her storylines and dialogue – transports the reader to a foreign, yet somehow familiar space in some respects. While almost none of us have lived within the confines of a convent, Coady is somehow able to infuse this space with a degree of familiarity. The young novices are not much different than many of the young women we would have encountered in the late 1950s, or continue to know in 2011. By the second or third story, the characters cease to be read as fictional; they seem both tangible and plausible as young women from our contemporary, everyday lives. For many of us, this should make it all the more troubling that they have entered into the innards of one of the most repressive, homogenizing and corrupt institutions in the history of ‘mankind’ – and yes, I use ‘mankind,’ as this has been and continues to be an extremely gendered institution dominated nearly wholly, if not completely, by men.
Mary Frances Coady was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Alberta. She attended the University of Alberta. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and she has published six books in her writing career. She is a sessional instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto and holds several other positions related to the writing industry.
There is a semblance of coherence to the book despite the stories not being written initially as a single monograph. The fact that the stories are set in 1959 reflects some of the social tensions of the times – both inside and outside the convent. Her desire to showcase some of the values and norms of the previous decades beginning to be questioned not only in the secular world, but also within the Catholic faith, works well throughout the collection of short stories. The characters, many of whom are experiencing poignant and profound inner turmoil, serve as symbols of some of the struggles that marked North American society in the 1960s. Race, class, gender, sexualities, war, and age, along with their myriad associated issues, made the 1960s one of the most pivotal decades of the past fifty years.
In this excerpt, Sister Geraldine delivers a summary of the previous week’s meditation to Mother Alphonsine and the rest of the novice’s:
“And then there’s this woman who barges up to Him. And, Mother, can you imagine what it must have been like for her? She sees Jesus ahead of her. He’s an important man, too important for her to talk to. Maybe she’s a peasant woman, of a lower class. Maybe she’s not very well educated and doesn’t know what to say. Maybe no one knows about her disease. Or else maybe it’s impossible to control and she always has embarrassing bloodstains that she can’t do about you – you know, Mother?” Sister Geraldine’s face looking pleading, as if she was desperate to convince the novice mistress.
“Thank you, Sister. This is a very vivid composition of place,” said Mother Alphonsine. She sounded less enthusiastic than she had been earlier. Sister Lucy tried to keep her head bowed, but her eyes were riveted on the other novice’s face.
“And Mother –“ Sister Geraldine continued to look over at the novice mistress, “- well she has these embarrassing bloodstains, and, well, you know, a lot of women have trouble with their period when thy get older. They have a heavy flow, and there’s a lot of pain sometimes. I know because my mother had a lot of trouble with it, and I bet that’s what this woman had –“
“Thank you, Sister,” Mother Alphonsine interrupted.
Sister Geraldine’s pale face had become flushed and animated. “You can just imagine, Mother, how hard it would be to ask a man for help for that kind of a problem. Not only that, but in those days women were considered impure during menstruation. So she should have been an outcast, and yet here she goes and creeps up behind Jesus, she manoeuvres her hand through the crowd of people and she touches His cloak.”
“Yes, Sister.” Mother Alphonsine clipped the end of each syllable, her tone sharp.
The major strength of the book is that it can be read by Catholics, other people of faith, and atheists, and offer something, on some level. Coady has managed to infuse a lot of humour into the stories along with highlighting the challenges, both internal and external, met by the novice mistresses and the people guiding them within the Catholic faith. Coady’s writing style is well served by her experience as a journalist. There is an economy to her words and it would be challenging to find instances of wordiness. As written earlier in the review, and this cannot be over emphasized, readers will come to care for the recurring characters in the book, and they transform into something more than characters. They become individuals, imperfect, uncertain, and awkward that will elicit emotion from thoughtful readers. Along with these strengths, there are some weaknesses.
Ultimately, Coady does not do enough questioning of a highly problematic religion. While some would argue that it is not necessarily her prerogative to do so, I believe that even staunch believers must question several of the ongoing practices that have come to define the Catholic faith. There is not much, if any of this in The Practice of Perfection – even if it does little to glorify it either. Another weakness is that some of the force that might have been created from novel form is diminished with the book being an assemblage of short stories. These shortcomings should not deter readers from taking this journey with the novice mistresses.
In the final analysis, Coady’s book is an important read. Even with some of the noted flaws, the book is both moving and powerful. While it is likely an unintended consequence, if one young woman is dissuaded from entering a convent after reading this book, I will be much the happier.
*A copy of The Practice of Perfection was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.