‘Sister Imelda’ by Edna O’Brien

Sister Imelda by Edna O’Brien, 1981

The magic trick:

Master of pace

“Sister Imelda” is a wonderful slow burn. Very methodical. The plot couldn’t be more linear. This happens, then this happens, and then this happens. And truth be told, not a ton happens. We’re focused here on a teenaged girl attending Catholic school. She develops a special bond with a nun. What kind of relationship? Hard to say. Certainly, there is some distance between what it is and what it could be. That tension drives the plot forward. But it’s slow. O’Brien is at the top of her game, totally in control of the pace. There is just enough movement to keep the reader interested, and just enough time in between for the emotional tension to seep into the reader’s psyche. And that’s quite a trick on O’Brien’s part.

The selection:

From then on she treated me as less of a favorite. She said my name sharply in class and once she said if I must cough could I wait until class had finished. Baba was delighted as were the other girls because they were glad to see me receding in her eyes. Yet I knew that that crispness was part of her love because no matter how callously she looked at me, she would occasionally soften. Reading her notebook helped me and I copied out her quotations into my own book, trying as accurately as possible to imitate her handwriting.

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