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Letter to Sister Benedicta by Rose Tremain

By Drharrietd @drharrietd


Somewhere over there on the ether (Savidge Reads, to be exact), A Rose Tremain fest is going on. I haven't joined in, not because I don't love her books, but because time is just too limited these days. However, I've just read one of her early novels, which happened to be on the bookshelf where I was staying, and had to tell you what a really wonderful book it is.

This the the story of Ruby Costard, who describes herself as fat and fifty. Raised in India, educated in a convent, she has long doubted her faith but not the wonderful serene love of Sister Benedicta, who taught her. So when she is in distress it is to Sister Benedicta (who she knows must be long dead) that she pours out her heart in the long letter that comprises this novel.

Ruby's husband Leon, a suceessful and chronically unfaithful solicitor, is in hospital, having had a serious stroke. Ruby visits him every day, and wishes she could encourage him to recover. He has a notepad and a pencil by his bed and a couple of times has managed to scribble something on it, though as the first time it was the night nurse masturbates and the second the aforesaid Robert Mainwaring, she is not sure how much progress this indicates. Perhaps the fact that he can write and spell long words like masturbate and aforesaid may be a good sign? Or not.

Meanwhile Ruby regularly lights 10p. candles in the Oratory and muses over her life. She very much misses her two adult children, both estranged -- Noel, who has chucked his Oxford degree and gone to live in France, and Alexandra, who lives in the wilds of Norfolk with her female lover and will not let her mother visit. She tries to comfort weedy, sad Gerald, who is desperately unhappy because his wife has run off with a handsome Italian. And she thinks more and more about India, a country which always puzzled her and now puzzles her even more, despite the piles of books she takes home from the London Library.

It's impossible to convery what a delightful, moving, funny novel this is. Ruby is quite unlike anyone I've ever met, but she is completely believable and her ups and downs, her doubts and pleasures, drew me in so much that I was really sorry to get to the end. However, life has taken a few interesting turns for her and we leave her setting out on a great adventure, and wish her the best luck and success in the world. 

Anyone else read this? I think Tremain is a really important writer and am now deep in another of her novels, Trespass, about which you will doubtless be hearing before long.


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