Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: Mercy House by Alena Dillon

If you say "Catholic" these days, there are any number of associations that come to mind: the Pope, church on Sundays, the sex abuse scandal. If you include nuns in your imagery, you probably envision either Maria at the convent in The Sound of Music, Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Habit, or more generically, nuns wielding rulers in Catholic schools across the nation. How often do you envision religious women who have given their lives over to God who do their own ministry and outreach among the poor, the reviled, and the forgotten? These crusading nuns do vitally important works in their community, living their Christian ideals every day. In her debut novel, Mercy House, Alena Dillon has brought to life one of these sisters, the safe shelter she and her fellow sisters founded, and their fight to keep it open in the face of malicious, institutionalized evil.

Sister Evelyn was promised to the church as a young child, her father vowing to give her into the religious life if God would answer his prayers and return her oldest brother safely home from WWII.  He did come home and she was forever after marked for the religious life, entering the convent as a novitiate at the age of 19. Fifty years later, she and two other sisters, Sister Maria and Sister Josephine, run Mercy House, a safe house for abused women in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They do not judge the women they serve but offer them the space and grace to heal the physical and the emotional wounds they carry when they arrive at Mercy House's door. In their ministry, the sisters sometimes stray from received Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and more, choosing, as Sister Evelyn says, to make decisions from their hearts rather than their heads when confronted with the reality of the women's situations. Only now their mission is threatened by the arrival of Bishop Hawkins, who is looking into all of the orders for the Vatican. His past history with Sister Evelyn will make him even more likely to dig too deeply into Mercy House and set him on a campaign to shut it down. Sister Evelyn is equally determined to save this vital mission and is willing to sacrifice greatly in order to achieve her ends.

Opening with Sister Evelyn welcoming a new resident in the middle of the night, the novel quickly introduces the damaged and vulnerable young women who are current residents at the house as well as Evelyn's fellow nuns. Evelyn herself is a wonderful character, both strong and weak, complex and intelligent, willful and determined. She has made compromises over her lifetime, compromises that she still grapples with, but she is fierce about her calling with these young women and her story is the one that takes the most focus of the novel. Her early life, both before and after her vows, alternates with the modern day situation at the house. Also interspersed in the narrative are first person descriptions of what landed them at Mercy House by each of the current residents. These tellings are horrific and graphic with abuse and neglect and they can be incredibly hard to read. But they are the true reality for many abused women and the horror of the characters' backgrounds helps to show the reader what is at stake should Mercy House be closed down. There is certainly much social commentary here, both on the systems that have failed these young women who have found themselves needing safe haven but also on the systemic abuses that the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to for so many years. The wealth of the Vatican and its representatives, in the person of Bishop Hawkins, is contrasted with the relative poverty of the women and the mission doing so much good in their local community. Dillon highlights the gross imbalance of power between the nuns and the priests within the church hierarchy and the irony of the "nunquisition," an actual examination starting in 2006 into the orders of nuns to ascertain whether they were in fact following Church doctrine or not, given the Church's blatant and blanket ignoring of the myriad illegal and immoral abuses by so many priests. But the book is not an all-encompassing condemnation of Catholicism, showing all but one wholly (holy?) evil character as complex, compassionate, and realistic human beings. The plot is fast paced, moving from one incident to another in Sister Evelyn's race to best Bishop Hawkins and keep Mercy House open, even as she is forced to consider just how far she can and should go in her quest. The ending petered out more than I'd have liked but it does also sort of fit to leave Evelyn just where she is, as life would. This is a gripping and dramatic story for those who can stomach the terrible abuse chronicled here and it certainly kept me reading well past my bedtime.

For more information about Alena Dillon and the book, check our her author site, follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and publisher William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for being on this tour, this sounds like this should be my next weekend read. Sara @ TLC Book Tours


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