I would like to know what "Behind it lay the nuns’ convent, their cloister with its orchards and grazing cows, and new residential blocks towering just above." means in the following sentences:

We climbed a set of narrow stairs lined by a large stone wall. Behind it lay the nuns’ convent, their cloister with its orchards and grazing cows, and new residential blocks towering just above.

A group of boys in tight jeans came towards us, walking down the narrow passageway. One held a small, heavily made-up girl around the waist, while another, with a sharp face and gelled-back hair, looked you up and down with curious eyes. You noticed him and your face seemed to harden; you looked away. We reached the top of the bridge and waited at the traffic lights. To our right lay the city, the neon lights of the tall buildings glistening, advertising clubs and restaurants, to our left the Wisła and the dark shore of Praga. I thought I could sense your restlessness. You looked at me from the side.

In this novel which is set in the 1980's in Poland under the socialist regime, where homosexuality was socially unacceptable, the protagonist Ludwik (a university graduate) left Poland in 1981 to live in the United States of America. And he remembers what it was like back then in Poland, where he used to stroll on the streets with his lover Janusz.

In this part, I wonder whether it would be right to understand that "cloister" here is in the "nuns' convent," and the "cloister" has "orchards and grazing cows," and "new residential blocks" were above the convent.

I am confused because of the fact that the cloister is preceded by "their" and orchards are preceded by "its." Because of these I came to doubt whether the cloister and orchards all really belonged to the convent. Would "their" perhaps indicate the "nuns," whereas "its" the "convent"?

And I also wonder where the new residential blocks were towering, because the object seems to be missing after "just above [*]".

I am an English learner from South Korea, so thank you for your patience in advance as I may not know obvious things. I would very much appreciate your help. :)

1 Answer 1


A convent is a religious community whose members live by certain rules and vows. The word also refers to

The buildings and pertaining surroundings in which such a community lives.

Hence, "their" in "their cloister" refers back to the nuns. However, "its" in "its orchards and grazing cows" grammatically refers back to "cloister".

Cloister can mean

A covered walk with an open colonnade on one side, running along the walls of buildings that face a quadrangle; especially (...) such an arcade in a monastery; (...)

However, cloister is here used as a synonym for convent, i.e.

The buildings and pertaining surroundings in which such a [religious] community lives.

The "new residential blocks towering just above" refers to building that are visible above the convent from the point of view the narrator; these buildings are presumably on a hill or a hillside behind the convent.

  • 1
    Alternatively, the residential buildings may simply be taller—the convent is likely rather old, and probably not terribly tall, while the contemporary apartment buildings might be quite a lot tall. That would lead to them “towering” over the convent, and also plays well into the the symbolism of the “new” encroaching on the “old,” with the “new” represented by the secular, urban, possibly soulless “residential blocks,” and the “old” represented by the religious, semi-rural, and devout “convent.”
    – KRyan
    Dec 19, 2020 at 20:58
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    @KRyan That's a good point; I had not though of that. Thanks.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 19, 2020 at 21:00
  • Dear Tsundoku and KRyan, thank you very much for the explanation. I agree that the interpretation that the new is encroaching the old is indeed a good point! Actually I wondered why the author would use "their" cloister rather than "its" cloister (because "its" seemed enough to refer to the "convent"), but now I think I am understanding the author's point. Then would it be alright to see that "the nuns' convent" and "their cloister" are in apposition with each other, and mean the same thing...? Dec 21, 2020 at 8:54
  • "their cloister" means "the nuns' cloister". The author could also have written "the nuns’ convent, with its cloister, its orchards and its grazing cows"; that would have been a different construction and perhaps closer to readers' expectations.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 21, 2020 at 9:46

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