Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Sacred Hearts and their secrets

I've just finished reading Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant - though I see they've brought out a new (and cheaper) edition with an unfamiliar cover. Never mind. It seemed a strangely appropriate book to be reading at the end of Lent - even though all the time I fretted uselessly about the fact that I was yielding to the temptation to read fiction rather than the serious reading I'd lined up all those weeks ago.

Set in the convent of Santa Caterina, in 1570 Ferrara, the novel tells the story of one reluctant novice and her fight to escape the prison of convent life to which she has been condemned by her father after an unsuitable love affair. Her mentor, the scholarly Suora Zuana, works in the dispensary, and we see the story through her eyes and through those of Serafina, the novice, although the use of 3rd person narrative keeps a certain distance and balance.The sense of convent life unfolding inevitably is intensified by the use throughout of the present tense - there is no feeling that anyone in the novel already knows what has happened in this momentous year; no omniscient narrator to hold our hands as the changes in the Church threaten the stability of what some might see as a home for women who are brides of Christ only because they have not become brides of anyone else.

Dunant again creates a believable picture of life in Renaissance Italy in what one critic described as "A rip-roaring tale in which gutsy vulgarity and ferocious academic intelligence go hand in hand". She also shines a probing light on such fascinating topics as holy anorexia, lesbianism among nuns, pre-modern teenagers and music in convents at this period. But in among all this scholarly knowledge there is a sixteen-year-old girl who could belong to this century in the turbulence of her emotions and her rebellious spirit, whose attitude to the faith she is supposed to embrace would seem familiar to many of us. And, despite the odd syntactical glitch, it's an absorbing read. I couldn't put it down.

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