Book Review: The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

We were known as The Guineveres to the other girls at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration because our parents all named us Guinevere at birth, a coincidence that bound us together from the moment we met. We arrived over the course of two years, one by one, delivered unto the cool foyer of the convent and into the care of Sister Fran. Each of us had our own story.

The stories of the four Guineveres- Gwen, Win, Ginny and our narrator Vere, are slowly revealed as we follow their regimented lives within the walls of the convent. Raised under the thumb of the strict, trenchant nuns and the jocular, wayward Father James, the girls must toe the line between expectation and desire.

“Amen,” we each said, our doubts subsiding, but not completely. Back in the pew, The Guineveres held hands as we kneeled, as we prayed. We were ordinary girls and it was still Ordinary Time, but we were certain, more certain than the stars in the sky or oxygen or heaven, that something extraordinary awaited us. Our fingers interlaced. We squeezed and released. If only we’d known to be careful what you pray for. It just might come true.

Desperate to live normal lives they find every substitute available: crushed berries for lipstick, sour, melted butter to soften their hair and skin. But they must wait patiently until their eighteenth birthday when the doors will finally open to their freedom. That is, until the arrival of five comatose soldiers injured in the War which carries on outside the walls of the convent and of which The Guineveres understand very little.

The Guineveres knew exactly what Father James was referring to, and in some ways he was right. As we brooded churlishly in the chapel, as we repented and bewailed our fates, outside the convent the War had already been declared. There were soldiers in the War, boy who would fight, boys who would become injured, grievously so. Some would die. But we could think only of ourselves in this moment. We didn’t care to know how a war a continent away could impact our lives of that it would. But that day, while we sat in the first pew of the small chapel at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration Convent- and despite the War- we were sure Father James was wrong.

When one of the other girls in the convent is sent home to nurse one of the recovered soldiers, the Guineveres see an opportunity, an answer to their relentless prayers for escape. Following an earlier thwarted attempt at escape via a parade float, the girls have already been sentenced to complete their Justice Under God by serving in the Sick Ward. They throw themselves fully into the task of nursing the elderly, the terminal and diseased just to get closer to the four remaining soldiers. Like a beacon, those boys hold within their frail, injured bodies all the possibility in the world.

Maybe love isn’t too far a cry from suffering. Maybe that’s why we fell in love with Our Boys, or why, at first, we said we did. Because we wanted our suffering to be useful; we wanted it to lead us to a greater good.

Convinced they will share the fate of their fellow ward, the four Guineveres see the coincidence that four soldiers remain as a sort of providence. They imagine what their lives will look like once the soldiers awaken and they do all they can to speed up the process. Each rifles through the possessions of the solider they have claimed with the hopes of uncovering their unknown identities. They write endless letters to the VA for help and they shoulder up to Father James, sharing in the wine and liquor that loosens his tongue, hoping he will assist in their endeavors. But their desperation quickly turns feral and the choices each Guinevere makes will take them down paths unknown.

Suffocated by the restrictions of the convent, the girls are forced to shroud their budding desires, their maturing bodies and their wandering minds and as a result they become misguided in their feelings towards the only young men they have seen since their arrival at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration.

What we didn’t know yet was how much we’d come to need these boys. We didn’t know yet how these wounded soldiers would undo us, or that they would unravel us, one by one. That’s the power of prayer, the risk of it, too: You never know how God will answer. At nights in the Bunk Room, before Lights Out and after we swapped out our uniforms for nightgowns, The Guineveres would link our hands together, rest our eyes, and pray for a miracle. Four miracles, in fact. We wanted out. We wanted to find our way back home, wherever that would lead us.

Scattered amongst this story are the histories of the saints, often grim and violent and the Revival stories of the four Guineveres, which are just as macabre. The Guineveres is a meditative exploration of the female coming-of-age in a controlled, suppressive environment that is opposed to all that entails.

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A review copy of this title was provided by BookSparks and Flatiron Books

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