Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

Although there are some similarities between Rumer Godden’s books, In This House of Brede (1969) and Black Narcissus (1939), the settings are poles apart. Both depict a community of nuns; the former in a traditional setting in a convent in England, and the latter, a small group in Mopu, a remote village in the Himalayas. The disparate settings makes for two very different stories.
Rumer Godden converted to Catholicism in 1957 after studying the great religions of the world and this decision is reflected in the narrative of In This House of Brede.

Black Narcissus is permeated with an ethereal sense of the spiritual climate of India and much that happens in the book is precipitated by this atmosphere. A group of nuns set out from Darjeeling to establish a school and medical centre in Mopu and everything they attempt is hampered by this prevailing climate. The former palace they are to use for their home and work was once a harem. A group of Brothers who had been there before them, set up a school, but left after only five months.
There are misunderstandings with the villagers, friction between the nuns, conflict with Mr. Dean, the hard drinking English agent, who acted for the owner of the palace. The story is a curious blend of paradoxes and before long, antagonistic forces erupt with tragic consequences.

Godden spent most of her childhood in India and returned to live there as an adult. She helps her readers to experience the India that she knew so well and her descriptions of the landscape capture the beauty and the harshness of the Himalayas. Describing the Himalayan snows behind and above the forest where it rose to bare and bony ridges she writes:

‘Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.’

As usual, the author’s writing is crisp and sparse, but highlighted by skilful personification and metaphor. She believed that modern writers used too many words and her own practice was to write by hand to allow time for her thoughts to disentangle themselves.

‘There was no such thing as privacy at Mopu, every sound was carried through the house and the rooms were built of windows opening in the endless corridors where the servants and workmen came walking by; and yet sometimes there was that sense of emptiness that was almost frightening, as if the house had swallowed everyone; you could walk in it for minutes and meet nobody. It was as if it had swallowed them up, they and the restraints they had brought to it…The house would not conform.’

Brona @ This Reading Life is hosting a Rumer Godden Reading Week. I enjoyed this book very much although my favourite of the two is In This House of Brede. Now I’m reading Kingfishers Catch Fire, another of Godden’s books set in India.

16 thoughts on “Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

  1. after reading Meredith, a pared down prose seems pretty attractive, lol… i have an ongoing interest in India and the Himalayas; i’ll have to look up Ms. Godden, tx…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed your review. Narcissus and Brede are both books I’m yet to get to, and I’m interested in seeing her portrayal of India.

    Her love for Catholicism I found reflected in my pick (An Episode of Sparrows) for RGweek as well; in Lovejoy’s reactions to the church and the statue.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great review! I think this must be a good book, based on your thoughts. And I am going to quote you

    As usual, the author’s writing is crisp and sparse, but highlighted by skilful personification and metaphor. She believed that modern writers used too many words and her own practice was to write by hand to allow time for her thoughts to disentangle themselves.

    That’s exactly how I want to write. Except I can’t write by hand because my thoughts come to quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh rats, I’m so upset that I missed this event. I’ve been having trouble getting my old blog (where I keep my blogroll) to accept Brona’s new feed.

    Your review has inspired me to read this book. I took it out from the library a couple of months ago but just didn’t pick it up before it had to be returned. I’ve read only one Godden book, a children’s book, so I have many to go!!

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      • I am about to start this one too Carol on your recommendation but also because I got it cheap at the local Vinnies. I am still waiting patiently for This House of Brede to arrive in the mail.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: #RumerGoddenReadingWeek2021 Wrap Up – Brona (This Reading Life)

  6. Thanks for joining in Carol. I too really enjoy Godden’s India stories and will probably read Black Narcissus for next year’s reading week. At the back of my copy of Coromandel there was a small extract diary of Godden’s about a trek she did through the Himalayas in the early 60’s. Her descriptions of the landscape are very evocative and made me feel like I’d been there.

    I’m very happy to accept any ‘late’ reviews, so don’t feel like you have to rush through Kingfisher.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful edition of Black Narcissus. I have a few of those Virago hardbacks from other authors.

    I missed this event but I am geared up to read The Greengage Summer by her next year. Looking forward to maybe finding a new favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The Classics Club: A New List | journey & destination

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