The Divine Economy of Salvation, Priscila Uppal's first and outstandingly successful novel, brings together two well-worn subsets of fiction: stories of teenage girls in a boarding school, and of nuns in a convent. "My name was Angela H. then. You may remember me," Sister Angela begins, a nun of twenty years' standing in a small and impoverished convent. Her voice, looking back, alternates with the voice of the young Angela, abruptly cut off because of her mother's illness from a happy girlhood in a loving family and stranded at St. X School for girls. The entire story is foreshadowed from the beginning by the tortured urgency of Sister Angela's "I must confess. It's time." Finally, the book's last lines come full circle to its first, neatly framing the novel's double action, Angela's present and the crucial days of her teenage past.
Sister Angela's voice sketches her companion nuns with convincing detail and differentiation. Her role in the economy of the community is entirely practical; she looks after the church's annual rummage sale, the renting out of space for various meetings and hesitantly engages in sending out some fund-raising letters, though she knows that Father B., the overseeing priest, would not approve. Her whole being is suffused by guilt for the wrong that she did as a teenager and its terrible consequence. She thinks of it as a debt and of herself as constantly trying to pay it without the slightest assurance that repayment is possible. There is no relief from the burden she carries. Uppal does not reveal the nature of that heinous wrong until three-quarters of the way through the book, but the entire story builds to that revelation, and then builds again to the final resolution. The Divine Economy of Salvation, which at first seems an awkward title for the novel, is worked out in Sister Angela's present, not by the reclusive self-punishment that has engaged her for her twenty years, and not be any divine punishment, but by her gradual though unwilling involvement with Kim, the pregnant waif taken in by the nuns. Finally, she recognizes the truth, though it is not an easy, comforting truth: "Forgiveness is not absolution as I'd once supposed. It's a carrying, owning one's sins."
The teenage Angela, longing to belong to the exclusive school clique who called themselves The Sisterhood, gave up her own individuality to Rachel, its leader. Their dominant interest was a confused curiosity about sex, and Rachel's most daring episode a brief and daringly plotted encounter with a boy from a neighboring boys' school. Rachel's father was famous for the treats he gave the elect few, movies, birthdays, candies, gifts, but Angela speedily found out that his major interest was sexual too. The encounter between him and Esperanza, the convent's maid, that she inadvertently witnesses only adds to her troubled sense of sex as a central, forbidden mystery in the hostile world she inhabits.
"Sisterhood" is a dominant theme throughout the novel. Angela moves from the ill-fated teenage clique to become one of the convent's Sisters, constantly engaged in her own self-punishment. She does not allow herself a sense of the love of God, only of his power to punish, first her mother, then her family, then herself. Her own sister, Christine, is emphatically a worldly sister, with whom Angela has no real ties of sympathy or love. Her memories of her mother whose mysterious illness broke up their family are less of a flesh and blood woman than of a saintly wraith¨another religious "Sister". Finally, unwillingly, she is forced into a kind of sisterhood for Kim, who is terrifyingly wraithlike, but all too real in the imperative needs of her pregnancy.
Underlying the entire work with a steadily sounding beat is a poignant sense of loss: loss of a mother, of a family, of an individuality, of any supportive sense of a Divine Presence or of the possibility of redemption or mercy. The ending's tentative upswing is exactly right and fitting. Uppal writes with a spare and sure effectiveness that is totally convincing and that Fraser Sutherland in an earlier review likened to "Margaret Laurence at her best." Three books of poetry preceded The Divine Economy of Salvation, but she has not fallen into the tiresome mannerism of "poetic prose." The theme of unrecoverable loss does, however, carry over from her poetry, as does the terse intensity of language that suffuses this book with suspense to its very end. ˛