So Close to Heaven

Written by Annette Oppenlander
Review by Fiona Alison

This powerful novel tells the little-known story of Sister Magdalena, the cellarin of Sabiona Abbey, in the Austrian Tyrol. It is a place of peace and isolation, the only home for most of the Benedictine nuns. Now this lonely outcrop stands in the path of Napoleon’s voracious rampage across Europe, and soon becomes a fortress occupied first by the Tirolian Army in 1796, then the French. The men desecrate everything in their path, contaminate grounds and buildings alike with their filth, trample the gardens, and infect sacred land. Soon the whole place stinks like a cesspool, and the nuns are forced to retreat into a small area to survive. Magdalena is one of the few nuns who refuse to leave when commanded to do so, risking life and limb to save her Abbey which has, in turn, saved her. Tested beyond all human endurance, I sometimes found myself begging her to seek safety as Sabiona is dragged through war and political turmoil.

This is an extraordinary novel which I raced through in one sitting. I simply couldn’t put it down. Magdalena replants and rebuilds time and time again, despite the desecration, standing firm against various commanders who put overwhelming obstacles in her path. The emotional impact of the story shifts between the daunting tasks she sets for herself, and the sisterhood of the nuns, particularly Gertrud, who is much younger, beautiful and a temptation for the men. Over many years their friendship is a heartening and precious experience. We can take inspiration from Magdalena’s story, but this is a novel of faith, not piety or sanctimonious pretention. Magdalena is truly humble and modest, passionate in her conviction, sometimes questioning God’s hand in her trials. There’s much to commend this compelling tale of one woman’s determination and willingness to sacrifice everything for her sisters, her abbey and her God.