Fiction – paperback; Orion Publishing; 144 pages; 2020.
It’s really no surprise that I would find much to like in Lauren Aimee Curtis’ Dolores, a perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.
It’s written in that stripped-back prose I so adore and the settings — an isolated convent and a South American city — are atmospheric, but it is the third-person “voice” of this story — aloof, naïve, melancholy and occasionally chilling — that makes this such a compelling read.
Adopted by nuns
It follows a 16-year-old who flees her homeland (an unspecified Spanish-speaking country) for a new life in Spain. One 40-degree day she finds herself at the “bottom of a long, sloped driveway” that leads to a convent. Halfway up she collapses. She’s taken in by the nuns, who dub her Dolores, a name that means “aches and pains”:
There she is: Dolores. Newly named. Sitting at the kitchen table inside the convent, conscious of how bad she must smell. Her armpits are wet. Her mouth is dry. The nuns gather around her. Without saying a word, one of them places a glass of water in front of her. Dolores drains it quickly. The nun picks up the glass, slowly, and fills it once more. Dolores drinks. The water runs out the side of the glass and down her neck.
But Dolores’ story doesn’t start here. It’s told retrospectively and is informed by the knowledge, revealed in the opening pages of the novella, that six months after her arrival at the convent she has a baby son — “a small blob of angry flesh” — whom the nuns name Francisco.
This new life, in the convent, is far removed from her upbringing, where she…
…would buy the ice-cream from the petrol station and then eat it sitting on the bench near the pump because she liked the smell. It was something about the combination. The sweetness of the ice-cream – cold, then melting in her mouth – and the petrol fumes thick in her nose. She would sit on the bench and watch cars come and go, exchanging ceremonious nods with children who looked longingly at her ice-cream while Dolores feigned nonchalance. It really was the highlight of her life.
The narrative spans half a year of convent living interspersed with vignettes from Dolores’ past to create a deftly woven story that contrasts the familiar with the unfamiliar. We learn about her childhood and her discovery of boys and sex at a young age. It is, at times, confronting and alarming. Her boyfriend pimps her out (without payment of any kind) in sordid love hotels, where she grants sexual favours to teenage boys and older men.
This is in stark contrast to her new life, surrounded by women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but where the local bishop is known to be a “nun lover”
This structure gives the story a feeling of suspense, because the reader wants to find out what led Dolores to move continents and to discover who the father of her baby might be.
In the convent, Dolores quickly adjusts to the nuns’ rhythms and daily rituals. She observes that there never seems to be enough food, that the Mother Superior has her favourites (whom she treats differently), that their days are dominated by domestic duties, prayer — and gossip. But she keeps her counsel and does not reveal that she’s carrying a baby. She does her chores, obeys her orders and begins to feel closer to God.
At the end of September, Dolores quietly turns seventeen. She has been at the convent for three months. At five-thirty in the morning, when the nuns wake up, the sky outside is blue-black. In the dim light of a lamp across the room, the nuns dress. Dolores lingers in bed, pretending not to watch.
Dolores is a book that is all about juxtapositions: old life versus new life, moral purity versus sexual promiscuity, obedience versus disobedience. It reads like a simple story, but it’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m tempted to read it again to see what I might have missed the first time around.
It has a rather abrupt ending, but it’s perfect for the story: it lets you, the reader, come to your own conclusion about Dolores’ future, almost as if she walks off the page and into the real world.
I recommend this one if you’re looking for an atmospheric read that will give you plenty to chew on.
If you like this, you might also like this:
‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen: A mesmerising story about a 17-year-old girl who joins a convent and then begins showing signs of divine possession. Is it a hoax or a miracle?