Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

When Caro was eight, her 19 year-old sister joined a convent, and Caro has hardly seen her since.  But now, eight years later, Hannah is returning home.  No one knows what happened or why Hannah left the convent.  Now it feels like a stranger is living in Caro's house.  Something happened to Hannah, something that Caro has no memory of, that is still haunting Hannah today, and won't let her move on.

I didn't like this when I first started reading it, but then I ended up liking it a lot.  I wasn't enjoying it at first because I felt like the book was giving nuns a bad name.  The convent Hannah joined sounded incredibly dated.  She was part of an order that still wore a full habit, never left the convent, wasn't allowed to visit her family, couldn't even visit them without being separated by bars like she was in a prison.  She never left her convent, but spent all eight years she was there in pray.  And I thought, "What kind of nunnery is this?"  Nuns are incredibly active with community.  They are strongly focused on social justice, doing work in education, with those who are sick or living in poverty.  Sometimes, they even disobey direct orders from the Vatican, when they feel there is too much focus on issues like abortion and not enough on helping those in poverty.  Nuns are kind of kickass.

A bit further into the story, this was clarified and the difference between contemplative orders and active orders.  Active orders are the ones who are focused on social justice.  Contemplative orders are focused on prayer, and there is still a number or contemplative orders in the US, although from poking about on their websites I don't know if they would actually prohibit you from seeing your family.  But maybe.  Anyway, after we got that all straightened out and I didn't have to feel so defensive of the nuns (What?  I just think nuns are kind of cool), I was able to enjoy the story much more.

Some of the language also threw me at first.  Caro would go from sounding like a typical teenager to saying something like, "In the flickering nickelodeon of my early-childhood..."  Whoa, where did that come from?  Pick what you want your character to sound like.

Everyone is kind of horrible to everyone at the beginning of the book.  This bothered me a lot, but as I got more involved with the characters and story, I could see how realistic this was.  Caro was incredibly hurt by her sister leaving, which is something she is not willing to admit and is not something she even really understands.  She is angry and resentful of Hannah, and the changes she brings to her family.  Caro sometimes goes out of her way to hurt Hannah, because Hannah has hurt her.

Caro's parents don't really know what to do.  They don't know this daughter who has come home.  Hannah is depressed and starving herself, and they don't know how to handle it, and unfortunately, they handle it by ignoring it for longer than they should, babying Hannah and "letting her adjust to being home" and in some ways taking out their frustrating on Caro, because they can't bring themselves to chastise Hannah.

Hannah is a total emotional mess, eaten up by guilt and doesn't know how to ask for help, or even feels like she deserves help.  She occasionally tries to reach out to Caro, but Caro, in her anger, shoots her down, which only makes Hannah retreat even further.

So it's a really sucky situation, made worse by all the things this family isn't saying to each other.  It of course finally all blows up and they have to start dealing with it, and this allows them to start healing.

There's a side plot between Caro and the relationships with her friends and her boyfriend.  Of course, everything that is happening at home affects the rest of her life.  Caro has never talked about Hannah to her friends, they don't even know she has a sister.  So when Hannah comes home, Caro lies about where she's been.  Caro doesn't understand herself why Hannah joined the convent, so she can't really be expected to explain it to others, so she hides.  This causes a rift between her and her boyfriend, who feels like he can't trust her.  Of course, this only makes Caro feel like Hannah is ruining her life all the more, rather than try to figure out why she lied in the first place.

There are some thought reflections on religion and its meaning in people's lives.  Caro ends up talking a lot to Father Bob, who tries to help her to understand why Hannah left and what she might be going through now.  Caro has a chance to ask questions and vent her frustrations to someone removed from the situation that can look at the big picture in a thoughtful way.  It does not help right away, but over time it does give Caro a better perspective on what's happened to her sister, and help her figure out what's really going on.

The Opposite of Hallelujah is a longer book, but once I got into it it went really fast.  Definitely recommended.

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