"They were unkempt, practically savages. Their teeth were yellow, their skin lined and leathery. They wore no shoes. Everything about them suggested that they let nature just take its course."
Such is the disconcerting observation concerning Sister Iphigenia, Sister Margarita, and Sister Carla by Father Ignatius in LAMBS OF GOD. (No immaculately white wimples here!) When I was a young lad attending Catholic elementary school, the nuns, though occasionally intimidating, were blessedly cut from different cloth.
Fr. Ignatius is the bishop's private secretary sent to reconnoiter the property of a deserted and forgotten island abbey (presumably in Ireland, though the book never states). The diocese wants to sell the site to a land developer, which has plans to create a posh resort. To the cleric's consternation, the abbey is still inhabited by the three named nuns and their flock of sheep. The sisters believe the sheep harbor the souls of the nunnery's deceased members. Isolation from the rest of the world has rendered the three just a little ... well, touched in the head, and their religious observances a peculiar blend of pagan and Christian. When Ignatius announces that the nuns are to be relocated and the sheep butchered, it doesn't go over well.
This novel by Marele Day is a gentle and low key fable of confrontation between the religious women, determined not to lose the only life they know, and the ambitious, young priest from the mainland. Managing to incapacitate the cleric and hold him incommunicado, it's their intent to "convert" him to their community lifestyle. On the other hand, Ignatius knows that to escape, he must divide and conquer, so to speak. In the course of this test of wills, we discover some deep and startling secrets harbored by the sisterhood. (It's a pointed reminder that beneath their habits and clerical garb, nuns and priests are "just folks". Perhaps this lesson is one of the novel's biggest strongpoints.)
While I like LAMBS OF GOD enough to recommend it, female readers will probably better appreciate it. The predicament in which our lone male hero finds himself is decidedly embarrassing, and not one to elicit much sympathy from passing Real Men. In recognition of this gender-based bias, I gave the book one more star than I would have otherwise. And this comes after accepting the precarious premise that the Holy Mother Church could lose total contact with a religious house - a material and financial asset, after all - and its residents during the last years of the 20th century when the storyline apparently unfolds. It illustrates the benefits of staying in touch.