by Rachel May
|Alleyway Books, 2016
Reviewed by Melissa Grunow
Anne James is a thirty-year-old Visiting Artist at Saint Christopher’s, a Benedictine Catholic boarding school in rural Maine. Although she had a Catholic upbringing, Anne can’t relate to the monks who run the school: “They are a mystery, even to the dogs.” She sees their long dark robes as both uniform and a distraction from their previous lives as married men with families.
In the first year of her two-year teaching position, she is struggling: struggling to adapt to the strict Catholic culture, struggling to manage the rebellious teenagers, and struggling to leave behind the memories of a failed engagement to a shadow of a man named Danny.
Although she feels that she doesn’t belong there, Anne also knows she has no place to return because her relationship is over. The distance is both emotional and geographic:
It’s too far away. I don’t understand this landscape, I say. Always, the wind. And the ocean with its whitecaps. And the teachers with their buttoned-up shirts and their blazers, their attendance at church, their shiny loafers. I don’t fit here.
For Anne, Saint Christopher’s may as well be on another planet.
The tone and structure of the novel create a sense of distance between the reader and Anne and between Anne and her colleagues at the school. Early on, she doesn’t even use character names and instead gives them nicknames that parody her impressions of them, such as My Devout Roommate, Talking Man, and My One Friend. Instead of chapters, the book is structured using short sections of narrative vignettes intertwined with communications from the school regarding upcoming masses, memorials, notices from the principal about grades, and the campus dress code, creating a sense that judgment is ever-present.
My Devout Roommate dislikes Anne almost immediately, seeing her as a sinner. However, the Roommate has a secret that is alluded to early on, though Annie can’t be sure what it is, as the woman is young—just out of college—and adamantly against sin in any form, including premarital sex. Tensions arise almost immediately with the Roommate and the headmaster as Anne defies a rule about no overnight guests of the opposite sex, first vocally and then in practice.
Anne’s students push the boundaries of the school rules, particularly a student named Kathryn who swears in class and pretends that a rolled up piece of paper is a joint. Students feel betrayed when Anne sends Kathryn to the headmaster’s office, and it’s the guilt of betraying her students’ trust that stays with her the longest rather than the guilt of defying school rules or her growing ambivalence toward the Catholic faith.
The turning point occurs when she realizes that she likes her students. “Strange how I like them. How they make me laugh. They are all kinds of tangled up inside, and they struggle and they yearn and they are honest and silly and good.” It’s not the teaching that is hard for her; rather, it’s the confines and restrictions of the place.
The Benedictines is a fascinating look into the restrictive and hypocritical practices of devout Catholics, the flaws of contemporary religious educational practices, and one woman’s internal struggle between the morals of her past and asserting her identity as a modern, independent woman. Firmly rooted in coastal Maine, the novel confronts the notion of belonging and identity, salvation and redemption. It’s a story that will appeal to any reader who can appreciate intentionally tight and simple writing against the backdrop of complex and seemingly contradictory dogma.