Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

The church was long considered a profession rather than a calling and those who entered into service to it were not necessarily called there by God or because of their piety and spirituality. And although this was true for men, especially those who were not likely to inherit from their fathers, it was doubly true for women, sent off to a convent for a multitude of reasons that had nothing to do with religion. Even Shakespeare wrote "Get thee to a nunnery" in Hamlet, when Hamlet exhorts Ophelia to give up thoughts of marrying him. And for many young women without marriage prospects, those who had sinned against society's mores, the not quite mentally intact, the physically imperfect, and those whose families didn't have the funds or inclination to offer them a dowry, the nunnery was in fact where they ended up, often times against their will. In Sarah Dunant's novel Sacred Hearts, Serafina, the newest novice in Santa Caterina, rages against her fate, incarcerated by her family, forever punished for her "crime," trapped and desperate.  Unlike many of the others who have unwillingly gone before her though, she is combustible and wily enough to affect the convent and all who live within its walls even as the convent faces the changes and tightening up within the church that governs it.

Told from two perspectives, that of the angry and bitter novice Serafina and the calm and soothing Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress, this novel charts the course of a very young woman fighting tooth and nail against her family's draconian but completely acceptable solution to her disobedience. There are various reasons the young novice ended up at Santa Caterina outside the city of Ferrara rather than closer to home, not least of which is that she has the voice of an angel and this particular convent is famed for its singing and performances. But she fights so hard when she first arrives that Zuana must be called to calm her through herbal intervention. Despite herself, this learned Sister is fascinated by the strength and vehemence she finds in Serafina's resistance to her unequivocal fate and her faith that she can in fact escape the life to which she's been doomed.

Assigned to assist Suora Zuana in the dispensary until she regains her voice after her screaming fits, Serafina shows quick intelligence, skill, and a facility for observation that all suggest she has an impressive and agile mind. And that fact alone makes her determined rebellion that much more dangerous to the already fracturing equilibrium inside the cloister's thick walls. As Zuana comes to know Serafina, she reflects on her own entrance into the convent, the loss of her own hopes and dreams, and ultimately the compensations she came to accept and appreciate once she was allowed to put her father's medical training into practice in the dispensary. But her own past also allows her to sympathize with Serafina's reaction to the total restriction into which she's been thrust and the anguish she feels at the loss of her lover. And it is this understanding and compassion from Zuana which drives the story and keeps the reader questioning what Serafina's ultimate fate will be.

Dunant has captured very well the outward serenity and unchanging routine of a 16th century Italian convent even as it roils with its own internal political intrigue mirroring the politics of the church and the secular world outside its walls despite the supposed almost complete sequestering of its inhabitants. She has drawn young Serafina as realistically willfull and quietly scheming but still incredibly sympathetic. The reader feels her visceral reaction to her fate and the way in which she rages against it. And Suora Zuana is a poignant, accepting character, yet strong and intutitive and fully congnizant of the impact Serafina's presence, either as a desperately unhappy novice or as one devoutly pious and searching for the light in God, has on all the other nuns and novices living in Santa Caterina. Dunant has beautifully captured a tale of trust and betrayal, of women's options, of love and loyalty, and of sacrifice. The story is slow but mesmerizing, thoroughly researched and completely captivating.   The best sort of historical fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. This was a great book. Your review is spot-on.


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