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Hope, faith and friendship - 'The Guineveres'

October 19, 2016
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Debut novel a powerful, beautifully-written effort

As readers, we all have authors, styles and genres that sit in our respective wheelhouses. These are the books with proven track records in our eyes, ones that we can feel confident about going in.

But sometimes, we come across a book that is an unknown quantity. Maybe it's a debut author or the themes are ones we don't tend to seek out. Perhaps the story as described on the book jacket or via the press release isn't something that piques our interest. The temptation there is often to stick to what we know we like, but the truth is that if we manage to leave our comfort zone, we might discover a gem that we wouldn't have otherwise found.

A gem like Sarah Domet's 'The Guineveres' (Flatiron, $25.99).

This book is a lovely and sad testament to the power of friendship and the willingness to hope, no matter what circumstances might dictate. It's the story of four young women all named Guinevere who find themselves wards of a convent in the midst of the throes of World War II. In a world where no one seems to want them, they cling to each other and to the notion of something more.

At the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent, four girls from wildly different worlds and circumstances find themselves thrown together, bound at first by their shared first name, but soon becoming an inseparable quartet devoted to helping one another through the relative bleakness of their situation.

There's Vere a sweet, pious girl full of hope and faith in both God and family who serves as our primary narrator; Gwen, a girl whose knowing confidence and self-styled glamor might be hiding a hint of desperation; Ginny, possessed of a creative spirit and artistic aspirations; and Win, the team's tough girl whose gruff exterior fails to mask the wounded child inside.

The Guineveres rely on one another to shut out and minimize the sadness that surrounds them, the constantly-dashed hope that someday, their families will return for them. Their lives are on pause as they wait for some word from home or failing that the day that they turn 18 and can leave the convent behind for good.

Their sequestered routine is soon thrown into disarray by the arrival of soldiers, terribly wounded and comatose men broken by the war and delivered to the convent, ostensibly to recover but more likely to simply die with a modicum of dignity. The Guineveres adopt these soldiers, calling them 'Our Boys' and constructing elaborate fantasies about how their lives might change if they can nurse these men back to health.

But their quest to find an escape leads all four of them down some questionable paths paths that will likely change the nature of their friendship forever.

The tale that Domet tells in 'The Guineveres' is one of sadness, but also of love. Even in the face of a reality that seems bleak and hopeless, these girls are able to depend on at least one thing each other. We see everything through the lens of Vere's perspective; she speaks both as a child in the moment and as a woman looking back to a pastshe is the biggest believer among them and her faith permeates the entire narrative; there are even a number of brief chapters devoted to her retelling of the stories of some of the saints stories that revolve around the unfortunate (and often brutal) results of women refusing unwanted possibilities in hopes of discovering true meaning.

There's a stark beauty to 'The Guineveres.' The insular world of these four girls is beautifully detailed, marked with exquisite phrasing and moving moments. Sadness and hope are rendered with equal amounts of tender language; Domet's prose gifts are undeniable. She creates a rich and compelling environment from the rather grim dreariness of these girls' lives; the generally well-intentioned oppressiveness of the convent is palpable, with small splashes of color both literal and figurative juxtaposing against the overwhelming austerity. Everything beyond their narrow, limited purview is hazy; the world outside the convent walls exists in a fog, a blurry abstraction existing largely beyond their comprehension.

'The Guineveres' is a moving and sweetly engaging tale. It is sad and funny, exquisitely written with a powerful depth of characterization. It truly is a gem, a worthy read that I feel lucky to have experienced.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:32

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