In This Small Spot – Caren J. Werlinger

In this small spot
“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”
Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years.

Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

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This is a brilliantly written heart wrenching book about love and loss, set in an Abbey and built around a woman’s battles to survive bereavement and come to terms with her faith.

Dr Michelle Stewart looses everything when her life partner dies of cancer. She is adrift and lost in a world she no longer feels a part of. More than anything losing her partner makes her question the point of her vocation as a cancer surgeon, and her faith. She finds St Bridget’s Abbey by chance, feels pulled towards it and the peace it seems to offer.

So she gives up career, possessions, friends and family to see how monastic life will fit. And in doing so takes us into a world of women, isolated, cut off to a large degree, and choosing to take vows of poverty, chastity, silence and obedience. From of this life choice we see the nuns and novitiates struggling to overcome themselves, everything from chatting to being nosy to gossiping to wanting closeness and falling in love. As Micky goes through these emotions herself we are shown how even the women who have been in the Abbey for years struggle – it is clear the battle is never won, and even the elderly nuns can fall prey to pride and jealousy.

All of this is done by a combination of internal monologues, subtle interactions and flashbacks to Mickey’s life and loss. The flashbacks show us the powerful woman Mickey was in her profession and her life, they throw into stark relief how much the loss of her wife has changed and undermined her, destroying her belief in her work and herself.
The characters of Mickey and the nuns around her, as well as the small family connections, are wonderfully drawn. Built up over layers of time and small interactions we get to know the core of many of the women. This one is jealous of her place, this one homophobic, another struggling with abstinence and so on. Each one a whole, but delineated by a battle. Ms Werlinger pulls out the essence of each character and reveals it with the thoughts and actions of women caught in an enclosed space and microcosm of society.

Despite the small setting there is a strong plot, following Mickeys internal journey, but also her external change. From the flashbacks we get to see her bigger life story, from the gradual integration in the community we see her become a central figure in the life of many and an important part of the fabric of the Abbey.

Caren Werlinger BiogThis is not a happy story, however. It is dominated by loss, doubt, struggle and self-confinement. For those of us who do not understand or empathise with the decisions these women have made it is an interesting read, but I found it a profoundly uncomfortable one. For me personally I found myself repeating the thought “Why” throughout the book. Not why did the author write that, but why would these women choose this life. And the ending was, for me, extremely painful. Not all stories end well, and I suspect others would say we should take the joy somebody finds as enough. But for me it was a difficult read.

However, don’t let my personal reaction put you off. It is a very interesting story, well thought through and profoundly moving. The characters are exquisitely drawn, subtle, emotive and sympathetic. The writing is quite beautiful, fine brush strokes on a small piece of ivory. And if nothing else it made me look at my own life choices and appreciate my freedoms.

(publisher review copy received)

Product info:

  • Paperback: 322 pages
  • First published 2013
  • Publisher: Corgyn Publishing, LLC (November 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00CLG16CW
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