Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2020

Dolores, by Lauren Aimee Curtis

After reading two chunkster novels in a row, I’m enjoying some compact novellas.  Dolores is nominated for the 2020 Readings prize, and was shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Awards.

It’s a bleak coming of age for the central character Dolores.  That’s not her real name, it’s how the nuns re-name her when they take her into the convent.

Dolores, the nuns had said. It was a name that referred to aches and pains.  Our Lady of Sorrows.  (p.1)

She was sixteen, and with a mouth full of crooked teeth, when she tried to smile, she looked as though she were being pinched by small, hidden hands.  So they named her well: it wasn’t her name, but it’s what she should have been called.

The convent is in Spain, and Dolores has made her way there from far away in an unnamed place where it is winter in June, to deal with a problem known only to her and to Angelo, the boyfriend that pimped her to his friends and abandoned her when the inevitable happened.  The story alternates between her progress at the convent, where the nuns are hoping for new young nuns to take their places as they die off, and back to the months before her arrival when she was newly discovering her sensuality.

The prose is disconcertingly spare and unemotional, which makes it all the more powerful when Dolores finds that it’s not only young men who want to exploit her.

Discipline in the convent is strict.

Inside in the convent, on the wall in the dining room, there is a large sign that reads ‘Silentium.’  The rule is strictly enforced. If necessary, the nuns speak using coded gestures of the hand.  They motion for soup or for extra bread.  Any unnecessary noise is considered vulgar.  The sound of a spoon hitting the side of a bowl.  Heavy footsteps in the corridors.  The legs of a chair dragged across the floor.  Once, when Dolores accidentally slammed the large wooden door on her way into the dining room, some of the nuns dropped to their knees.  Pure horror flashed across their faces.  It was as if a bomb had fallen from the sky.  One nun stood frozen in the middle of the room with her hands covering her ears. (p. 51)

The routines, however, seem to provide some solace for Dolores, though there is no insight into her feelings.  She does her chores, she says her prayers and outside, where talk is permitted while they work, she listens to the gossip, just as she used to listen to her mother gossiping with a friend.  She witnesses the contradictions of the enclosed life where she is briefly displaced as the ‘pet’ of the Mother Superior by the arrival of a beautiful, wealthy novice, only to have her place restored when one of the other novices attacks in a jealous rage and the beautiful one departs in an expensive car.  And all the while, concealed by the loose clothing the nuns have given Dolores, the baby is growing, unknown to all.

We like to think that the shame of teenage pregnancy is long past in liberal societies, but though lightly sketched Dolores shows us that a conservative religious family can instill a fear so great that a vulnerable girl would rather escape into the unknown and face her future without them.  Yet despite the passivity with which she accepts her fate at the convent, she remains the girl who took the initiative to wangle an airfare and then vanish from her unsuspecting relations in Seville.

So I should not really have been surprised by the ending!

Author: Lauren Aimee Curtis
Title: Dolores
Publisher: Wedenfeld & Nicolson, 2020, first published 2019
ISBN: 9781474612517, pbk., 130 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings

 


Responses

  1. […] Dolores (Lauren Aimee Curtis, W&N), see my review […]

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  2. […] Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) see my review; […]

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  3. You never fail to induce me to read the book!

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  4. Ah, found your review now! Glad to hear you liked this one as much as me. It’s interesting we don’t really get any insights into Dolores’ emotional state and while she comes across as passive in almost every facet of her life, both new and old, it is interesting that she took her own initiative to run away to Spain.

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    • Yes…
      I’m not as convinced as you that she was in a South American country to start with. Clearly she speaks Spanish, and has an overly religious mother, but that could easily happen here in Australia too. (I know we have a Chilean community here, for example). I didn’t actually twig that she was from the southern hemisphere until I read that winter was in June, and then I trawled back through what I’d read, and watched out for more clues from then on, and ended up none the wiser.
      (Though there is always the chance that I missed something.)
      Whatever, the ambiguity is obviously a deliberate choice by the author… it gives her situation a universality, eh?

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      • Good point. I think it was the idea of love hotels, which are popular in Latin America, that convinced me this is where Dolores grew up. Also, her mother is obsessed with telenovelas, so that was another clue. But you’re right: it could be anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

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        • Ah, yes, the love hotels… do we have those in puritan Australia?

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          • Well, we have plenty of seedy 60s & 70s rundown motels, but not sure they count. When I went to China I inadvertently stayed in a love hotel. There was a basket in my bathroom with complimentary underwear & condoms & toothbrush. In the corridor there was a vending machine with more of the same.

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            • That’s hilarious!

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              • It freaked me out a bit 😱

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