Sacred Hearts….and fruits!

At long last it’s harvest time- it may well be over a 2 week period in the Parish Church… no doubt details will follow…but in our garden we are busy harvesting blackcurrants, gooseberries and new potatoes. Last week HM was asked to pick red currants – which he eventually did – except that this week we seem to have black currants. Same bush? Or under ripe? The gooseberries were definitely done, but they bite. Gloves will have to be issued. The potatoes were excellent, but what happened to the strawberries? The mysteries deepen…

Meanwhile, a book which combines a thorough knowledge of things natural with an enclosed community. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is a novel set in a convent in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1570. This sounds as if it could be limited, but within the convent is all human life. Politics, jealousies, ecstasies, all in a community of females each with their own story. Seen as a viable alternative to marriage, many of the women in the enclosed order of nuns are educated and maintain their wealthy status. Encouraged to make generous dowries, families of high status retain an influence on the pecking order of the nuns, for whom religious conviction is at the very least variable. In some ways the old order is breaking down; there are stirrings of reform from afar, but in the meantime the nuns continue their pattern of life undisturbed as they prepare for and perform at the festival.

Into this fixed regime is introduced a novice who violently objects to her incarceration. Serafina brings a great endowment of money and intelligence, and the promise of a uniquely wonderful singing voice. The infirmary sister, Zuana , is charged with reconciling the novice to her fate, and introduces the girl to her astounding knowledge of medical herbs and spices. Zuana gained her knowledge from her physician father, but is only allowed to practise medicine in the confines of the all female society.  As both women fight to assert themselves and in Serafina’s case, escape the convent, the pressures of the forces of religion, politics and sheer humanity carry the narrative forward.

And that, perhaps, shows the problem with the book. My reading of Dunant’s other excellent books such as In the Company of the Courtesan conveys her ability to establish character and setting quickly and deeply. I could emphasize with the two main characters   very speedily; the girl’s determination to escape, the older woman’s frustration in her limited abilities to treat and cure. The story is simple, but gets drawn out perhaps beyond its natural length. If a novel has a natural rhythm, this one struggles to maintain it. The reader seems to be continually ahead of the narrative, and perhaps wishes the characters would catch up. But having said that, the colour, detail and depth of the writing meant that I was more than willing to finish the book.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a weightier achievement than Dunant’s previous work, and reflected a great depth of research and description. I felt for the characters and understood their motivations against the restrictive female community. I suspect it would appeal to women more than men, but would be a challenging and interesting choice for a bookclub. It introduces many issues of religion, corruption, gender and historical context. I would recommend it, with a warning that it is not a quick or easy read, but an enjoyable one.

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