George Hodgman
October 06, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Lying Awake

Current Status
In Season
Mark Salzman
Fiction, Philosophy and Religion

We gave it an A

Mark Salzman, best known for his 1987 China memoir Iron & Silk, returns to fiction with Lying Awake, the story of Sister John of the Cross, a 40ish nun who has found shelter in a Carmelite order in Los Angeles. The place, tucked into the hills, is as invisible as a sunken ship. After lonely years of struggle, Sister John has finally discovered the pure awareness of God, which she experiences as a rising from within, as if her spirit could no longer be contained by her body. The poetry she writes after these trancelike moments not only attracts the attention of the Vatican and secular readers but brings her fame inside her cloister. The book’s conflict rises from the sister’s discovery that the migraine headaches that accompany her states of grace — and fuel her creativity — are caused by a treatable epileptic condition; Sister John must then confront the possibility that what she took for God’s reassurance was actually a neurological tic. In an era of trendy spirituality, Salzman has rendered the real thing. His book should be shortlisted for all the literary prizes, but it has the kind of grace that doesn’t demand them. A

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