When we meet Rebecca Holden, she is hiding out in the back cubicle of Secure Star Insurance, near the flushing toilets. She keeps the walls up between herself and her two coworkers (Sally and Gladys). Andrew, the new HR manager arrives and discovers that there is more to Rebecca than the quiet efficient assistant in the rear cubicle[Spoiler alert, next two paragraphs ].
Four years earlier, Rebecca Holden used to be Sr. Rebecca Marise, a member of the strict, traditional Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (SCR), a teaching order. The order clung to the strictures of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the nuns wore habits and never styled their hair, they kept a strict community rule, regulated by the head of their order, Mother Mary Thomas. The order is growing in size and prestige with many new recruits and the support of conservative Bishops.
Sr. Rebecca is evidently happy in her vocation, living at the mother house among other young recruits. Then an older nun has a hard attack and Sr. Rebecca finds herself transferred to remote Appalachia, to a small school and convent, far away from the structure and strictures of SCR central command. The difference between these sisters and those at the Mother house is immediately evident to her (e.g. a looseness with the hours of prayer, personal address, divine readings, educational strategies, and the dress code). Eventually these sisters are brought into conflict with the Mother house, precipitating the circumstances in which Sr. Rebecca leaves the order.
Linda Anne Smith, author of Terrifying Freedom, hails from somewhere near Calgary has woven a tale of terrifying freedom—what it means to pick up the pieces of life after the myth of certainty and control collapses. Her protagonist, Rebecca, leaves the order and the whole way of life she’s ever known only to feel isolated and suffer rejection from her mother. This is a story of what it means to pick up the pieces when the life of faith breaks open.
Generally, I am suspicious of fiction that is: (a) religious or (b) self published. Religious fiction tends to be too didactic, telling not showing, self-published works often suffer for lack of editorial review (there are some pretty great exceptions in both cases). Terrifying Freedom is well written. Smith’s use of religious themes serves the story. There is a message but Smith’s prose doesn’t preach. Smith did have an editor review her manuscript and the writing and production quality is excellent.
However, at 490 pages, I couldn’t help feel like the story was a little overlong (at that length, I feel like I expect a multigenerational family epic or the fires or Mordor). The first 157 pages tell the story of Rebecca and her coworkers at the insurance agency before we are transported back to Rebecca’s life as a nun (the meat of the novel). I felt like this first part could have been significantly shorter. I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it (I restarted this novel several times) and I didn’t find it a compelling read until I had gotten some way in. The second part of the novel is much better and part 3 weaves the strands of Rebecca Holden’s life together as she confronts her past. If the first section was shorter, I think the whole novel would have been paced much better.
Still, a first novel, this is a pretty impressive achievement and I ended up enjoying the book a lot. I give this four stars.
Notice of material connection: I received this book for free from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.