Monday, December 3, 2012

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

I have to admit that I wasn't sure what this novel was going to be like, given its unusual premise of a young woman returning home after leaving the convent. But for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this topic was handled and how well written The Opposite of Hallelujah is.

Sixteen year old Caroline Mitchell, known as Caro is angry that her older sister, Hannah is coming home to live after an eight year absence. Hannah left home at the age of nineteen to enter the Sisters of Grace, a fictitious contemplative order located in Middleton, Indiana. Narrated by Caro, The Opposite of Hallelujah begins her story when she was nine and told classmates at her Catholic school that her older sister was dead, earning her the nickname "Caroliar". When Caro's parents confronted her over her lie, she tried to defend her actions. She has now rationalized her behaviour those many years ago by indicating that she was never given the words to know exactly what happened to Hannah.

Now in high school, Caro doesn't want her sister home and she doesn't want to go with her parents to meet Hannah at the train station. Caro hasn't seen her in four years, having refused to visit Hannah at the convent. Caro's parents haven't said much about why Hannah has left Sisters of Grace so Caro doesn't really know what has happened to cause her to leave.

But when Hannah arrives home it is obvious that something is terribly wrong with her. In Caro's words, Hannah "looked gaunt and drawn, tired and pale and fragile, like a porcelain doll that had been badly propped in its stand." Neither her parents nor Hannah will really open up about about what is going on. When Father Bob comes to the house for a visit, Caro is at first cynical towards him but after talking to him, she wishes her sister would talk to their priest.

Caro's personal life isn't going so well either. Her boyfriend Derek is also returning home at the end of the summer after being away for almost two months at camp. Caro wanted to meet him instead of going to pick up Hannah but that wasn't an option. So when he doesn't call or text her, she calls her friends Reb and Erin to ask them if she's going to get dumped by Derek. In an attempt to beat Derek to the punch, Caro shows up at his house to break up with him only to have him break up with her first.

But this frees Caro to forge a friendship with a much more interesting and caring boy named Pawel Sobczak, who speaks Polish and French. At first Caro isn't too open with Pawel about her family, carefully avoiding any mention of having an older sister and not inviting him over. But eventually she can't hide this fact forever, and Pawel guesses that she is not an only child. In order not to look mean and uncaring and so as not to have to explain her sister's difficult situation, Caro once again takes to lying. She tells Pawel that her older sister has just returned from working in the Peace Corps in Africa. This is a lie that will come back later on to bite her.

Meanwhile at home, Hannah's fragile emotional condition continues to spiral downwards. She spends most of her time in her room and doesn't eat much. When Caro is asked by her mother to clean her bedroom closet (what mother doesn't ask her daughter to do this?) she discovers some of Hannah's old boxes in the garage. It is there that Caro unearths a hint of what may be troubling her sister.

Eventually, everything comes to a head in Caro's relationships with Pawel and Hannah. Caro's parents insist she invite Pawel over for dinner and it is at the family table that Caro's lie comes back to haunt her. When her family learns what she has done they are horrified. This time Caro cannot claim she doesn't have the words to understand. She must face up to why she keeps lying about her sister. Caro's explanations to Pawel ring hollow and destroy his trust in her. Caro is forced to finally talk to Hannah and apologize.

When Caro seeks out Father Bob for "confession" he helps her understand that her choice to lie has repercussions, some of which might be permanent. Caro is worried she is not a good person, but Father Bob tells her that this her choice and that her past choices do not dictate her future. He also suggests that God's universe is a work in progress and suggests that Caro try creating something instead of always destroying things. Can Caro redeem herself and heal her relationship with Pawel? More importantly, can she discover what happened to Hannah and help her and her family heal?

After Caro confronts Hannah about what happened years ago, Hannah becomes seriously anorexic, requiring hospitalization and a feeding tube. Caro's conversations with Father Bob help her to understand how Hannah may have ended up so ill and how to help her.

The positive portrayal of a Catholic priest has to be one of the outstanding features of The Opposite of Hallelujah. Father Bob of St. Robert's Parish (an unfortunate co-incidence of names) is a genuinely caring priest who through his conversations with Caro, intelligently discusses, some pretty heavy concepts including free will, discerning the will of God, the nature of the universe, the different types of religious life, and the complementarity between science and faith, the nature of forgiveness and suffering and guilt.

Their relationship is probably the most interesting in the novel. Caro is initially quite cynical and even a bit disrespectful towards Father Bob. He doesn't have any words of wisdom for her. But she finds herself seeking answers to tough questions from him and it is through intelligent discussion with Father Bob that Caro begins to understand her sister and plenty of other things too.

Caro doesn't really understand what her sister's contemplative order was like and why her sister might have joined one. Through Father Bob, readers learn what a contemplative order is (the focus of the vocation is prayer) and how it differs from active orders which work in teaching and nursing for example. Father Bob doesn't have the answer as to why Hannah might have joined a contemplative order. He does offer some interesting ideas though,
'It appears that the contemplative life didn't' bring out Hannah's best self," Father Bob said. 'It didn't fulfill her in the way it should have if it was her true, lifelong vocation. That's nothing to be ashamed of.'
Father Bob eventually helps Caro to understand how Hannah, consumed with guilt, couldn't forgive herself and ultimately shut God out of her life. Father Bob tells Caro not to run away from what scares her and to face her mistakes because in the end they must be dealt with.

Waterfall by Escher
By creating an intelligent priest character and making him have a degree in astrophysics, Jarzab has created a character whose intelligence is never in doubt. He is both scientist and priest. Father Bob helps Caro grow from the self-absorbed girl who cares only about what she can get from others to someone who is trying to be better and to think about how others perceive her actions.

The overall character development in this novel is excellent. Even secondary characters such as Reb, Erin, Derek and Pawel are well drawn. Although he has a small part in the novel, Derek evokes strong emotions (for being a jerk) and the exchanges between Reb and Caro are realistic and filled with humour.

There are lots of other interesting topics readers may be introduced to in the novel including Rube Goldstein machines, the paintings of Escher, and single-bubble sonoluminescence.

The Opposite of Hallelujah is one of the best books I've read this year. It's long, at 449 pages but well worth the effort. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy novels that focus on relationships.

Book Details:
The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab
New York: Delacorte Press        2012
449 pp.

No comments: