Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

Bestselling author and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh transforms an ancient folktale into a timeless parable of a young woman who dares to risk her life for her faith.

Born to an aristocratic family in rural Vietnam, Kinh Tam’s uncommon beauty and intelligence were obvious to all she encountered. From an early age she was drawn to the teachings of Buddha and the rewards of a monastic life, but to please her family she agreed to walk the traditional path of marriage.

Throughout her marriage, Kinh Tam’s mind was devoted to her husband but her heart never waivered from her true calling. She wanted to be a monk. And yet Buddhism was still new to Vietnam and temples accepted only men for ordination. Making a decision that would forever change her life, Kinh Tam left town, disguised herself as a man, and joined a monastery as a novice.

Despite the many challenges of living as a man, Kinh Tam thrived and became a beloved member of the community. Years of profound joy and peace passed until a local woman accuses the novice of fathering her unborn child. Kinh Tam is torn between two impossible choices: keep her secret and endure brutal punishment or reveal the truth that would prove her innocence but put an end to her spiritual path.

Facing the unbearable with the boundless heart of Buddha, her choice forever changes her life, her country, and her faith.

In spare, elegant prose, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we, too, face our own injustices and suffering, and by connecting with love, we can, like Kinh Tam, discover a mind and heart that are peaceful, happy, and free. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: brief mentions of familial abuse (from in-laws)

I’ve read several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books in my life. When I saw this novel in the bookstore at Plum Village Monastery, I was surprised, for I hadn’t known that he had written any fiction. As soon as I got back to the States, I reserved The Novice at my local library and eagerly waited for it to come in.

One of the many things I love about Thich Nhat Hanh is his writing style, something that I’ve recognized in every book of his that I’ve read, and The Novice is no different. At first, it was a little disconcerting, since this is a novel and not non-fiction like his other works. In fact, I almost stopped reading before I finished the first chapter. I’m really glad I kept reading, though, because the writing style and tone grew on me. The Novice was inspired by the life of a real Vietnamese Buddhist, and the book definitely stayed truth to the folk-legend roots, particularly in tone. I enjoyed the balance between conversational and detail-rich.

The story itself was interesting, but it was pretty much what the blurb describes; there weren’t a whole lot of twists and turns or subplots. This book is more in the telling, and in the Buddhist philosophies that Kinh Tam lived, which brings up another point: several times throughout the book, the narrative is interrupted to briefly explain certain Buddhist concepts. I’m somewhat familiar with these concepts, so I didn’t particularly like them, but others might appreciate their inclusion.

This is a book that really isn’t hiding much, and its simplicity is what makes it so wonderful. In some ways, it brings to mind the Christian parables that I’ve heard since I was little. The characters aren’t so simple that they’re flat, but I wouldn’t call them complex in the way that you normally well-written characters in novels. They’re more like fairy tale characters, almost allegories in themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, despite my misgivings during the first chapter. If you don’t like Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing style, you probably won’t like this book, but it is an excellent read for those who already enjoy Thay’s writing.

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