The story is narrated by Vere, told nearly two decades after the events occurred. This affords the reader the benefit of hearing the story from a child’s point of view, but through the lens of maturity and wisdom. Domet succeeds in capturing the dreamy thoughts and passionate emotions of adolescent girls. Hiding in a parade float, the girls close their eyes in the hopes that “if we couldn’t see them, we’d be invisible.” And they pass the time by making a game of rain on the window, “picking which raindrop would beat the others, the winner feeling only mildly less apathetic after victory.”
The author does an impressive job developing a curious cast of characters, particularly evident in the description of body language to animate Vere’s gravely injured solider. There’s Father James, an alcoholic who joined the church to avoid being drafted. He adopts the girls as “altar boys,” an exception that could only be made as part of the war effort. The pasty, pressed-lipped Sister Fran runs the convent, acting as a strict mother figure, who offers platitudes like, “Can you imagine if the Ten Commandments were called the Ten Suggestions?” There’s also the Sister with the proud stutter and the resented Lottie, who actually receives letters from her parents.
But they all serve to assist the damaged, multi-headed character that is the Guineveres: the beautiful Gwen who “smiled with lips that she’d redden with raspberries”; creative Ginny who rubbed dried paint on her skin; and the macho Win who gets nose-to-nose with a girl she wishes to intimidate.
The least is known about the narrator; what we know is gleaned from her interactions with her best friends. Vere often refers to the group as though it were one person, saying things like “we tried to put this out of our minds” or “we felt stunned, as if someone had ripped off a leg and expected us to keep on walking.” But as time passes without any of the boys regaining consciousness, the foursome begins to fall apart. A failed solo attempt to escape and a nervous breakdown signal the beginning of the end for the Guineveres.
About the girls’ later lives, Vere says they had “been through marriages and children, death and divorce.” It is safe to assume she moved on as well. Throughout her reflections about the Guineveres’ lives in the nunnery, Vere interweaves tales about the virginal women saints the girls studied in class, including Saint Cecilia, who began to sing after she was beheaded for not renouncing her faith. Eerie parallels can be drawn between Vere’s life and those of the suffering saints. But, in a satisfying way, this connection only becomes apparent in the novel’s final pages.
By Sarah Domet
352 pages, $25.99