20 Books of Summer, 12–13: Black Narcissus & The False Rose

I’m limping towards the finish line with my flora-themed summer reading. Expect the reviews to come fast and furious over the next week and a half. Today’s novels aren’t about flowers, per se, but the title references do play a role. Both: (Public library)


Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden (1939)

I saw the Deborah Kerr film version of this way back in my teen years but had never read anything by Rumer Godden. My interest was renewed by Laura’s post on nun books. A group of idealistic English nuns sets up a convent school and hospital in the mountains above Darjeeling. “They were going into the wilderness, to pioneer, to endure, to work; but surely not to enjoy themselves.” Much of the appeal of reading about small communities is seeing how different personalities play off each other: aloof leader Sister Clodagh, pensive Sister Philippa, impetuous Sister Ruth. The land belongs to the General, whose teenage son Dilip Rai comes for lessons (he’s a bit of a dandy and wears Black Narcissus perfume); the General’s caretaker, Mr. Dean, is a go-between between the nuns and the natives. Though cynical and often drunk, he pulls through for the sisters more than once.

There are vaguely racist attitudes here, perhaps inevitable for the time this was written, but the English characters do start to change: “[Sister Clodagh] was fond of these people. She could not remember when it was that she began to think of them as people; not as natives, persons apart, but as people like themselves, and she was beginning to see with their eyes.” An erotic undercurrent explodes into a couple of obsessive crushes that threaten the entire mission. I read the first third of this on a bus in the Highlands and when I tried to get back into it a month later, it couldn’t recapture my attention despite an enticing Indian atmosphere.


The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius (2020; 2021)

[Translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves]

This is why I shouldn’t read sequels. The Murderer’s Ape was a pure delight and perfect companion on my long sea voyage to Spain back in May. Its every character and plot twist twinkle and the pages flew by. By contrast, this was … fine, but unnecessary. The plot turns on a pearl necklace Sally Jones the gorilla and Captain Koskela find hidden on their boat. Its centerpiece is a carved mother-of-pearl and silver rose and it belongs to Rose Henderson, the estranged daughter of Shetland Jack. They decide to return it to the rightful owner, but before they can track Rose down the necklace is stolen and a whole spiral is set underway. Once again, Sally Jones is separated from her captain and has to survive by her wits. Held prisoner by Glasgow bootleggers, she has to let them think her deaf and dumb, but makes friends with a former boxer named Bernie, who’s in thrall to his sister, harsh gang boss Moira. The final 100 pages or so, as everything finally unwinds, is satisfying, but it took me forever to make it there. I missed the supporting characters of the first book and gangster stories aren’t my jam.

12 responses

  1. Too bad your mood was broken with Black Narcissus, because I found it unsettling and eerie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to watch the movie again. Have you read other books by Godden?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, bunches of them. I read all the ones set in India and a few more. If you look on my blog, under Authors and her name, you can look at my reviews if you want.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters of Black Narcissus 😦 Such a different narrative voice from In This House of Brede, which I adored.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s really interesting. I assumed all her ‘nun books’ would be of a piece! I’d heard Black Narcissus described as gloriously gothic, but it never captured me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nah, you’ve sold me neither of these. I am trying hard not to boost my TBR list too much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t sold on either one myself. When it comes to review copies I’ve gotten from the publisher, I feel like I have to pull out all the positives. When it’s books I’ve sourced from the library, I don’t feel so obliged.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I tried with Black Narcissus too but just couldn’t get engaged with it – also tried the film but never got to the end

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting! I loved B&W and classic films in my youth and watched so many of them. I can’t say much about this one stuck with me, but I do remember Deborah Kerr being formidable in her role.


  5. I enjoyed Black Narcissus though it was a bit melodramatic. I’m sure you’ll get to the end as you probably have 20 books on the go with 10 pages left each! I have one more to read and hoping Every Last Puffin is a reasonably quick one: I broke my 20Books to do a Women in Translation today!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just a few more to finish over the next couple of days and write up by Thursday. Simple!

      How could a puffin book fail to be good? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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