Like Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory, which I reread a couple weeks before starting this, Lying Awake concerns a hypervigilant, self-critical soul questing for God and unable to take comfort in potential signs of having made progress.
Salzman’s character is a cloistered nun who for almost 30 years has devoted herself to chanting liturgies, meditating, and writing poetry about the soul’s aspiration. She has now begun having severe headaches, which she almost welcomes as a small portion of the cross she seeks to bear. But with them, increasingly, come flashes of vision that could be glimpses into the hereafter. If so, this could be the answer to her lifetime of self-sacrifice.
There’s a medical explanation, too, however, and the neurologist has a remedy. Of more concern to her is the implication of allowing the visions to continue: It can’t be right for her to allow other nuns to become jealous of her gift, or to disrupt the ordered flow of activities in the convent when the condition overtakes her. (Any parallel between her and their patron saint, who may have had the same condition, is of course unthinkable and never mentioned.) On the other hand, she dreads giving them up and resuming her former unanswered quest. Still, taking any pleasure in what could be evidence of God’s favor would, by definition, make her undeserving of that favor.
Mark Salzman is one of the two living authors I would most like to know in person (the other being Amy Tan). I first encountered him via his delightful coming-of-age memoir Lost in Place, then Iron & Silk, and most recently The Soloist, which is most like the present one. (I see that I gave five stars to The Laughing Sutra, but my memory of that is not as vivid.) In each, I admired the insight he displays, particularly because each intersects with a portion of my own life and relates it in a way I could not.
Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son. He has an eclectic interest in books and authors, and reviews books as part of his passion for the written word. He blogs at fatherspledge.