Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant.
Oh, sweet, sweet Jesus, is this how it will be? Day after day after day, is this how it will be? Because if it is, then surely she will die here. There has not been a second when she has not been prodded by or spied on by somebody, starting from the moment they shook her awake that morning, and she had felt so sick and dizzy she could barely focus, her head filled with tumbling nightmares, and she had opened her eyes onto this fat bearded woman's face, thrusting itself into hers, telling her to thank the Lord for bringing her safely through the night, and glory be to Him for this, her first day in Santa Caterina. - from Sacred Hearts, page 36 of the ARC -
Sixteenth century Italy was a time in history when young women found themselves being forced into convent life against their will. The price of wedding dowries was so high that Italian aristocratic families could choose only one daughter to be married off -- any other daughters in the family were sent to convents where the cost to marry them to Christ was affordable. By the turn of the century (1600's), the Roman Catholic Church pushed through a counter-reformation movement through cruelly restrictive measures instituted at the convents across Italy -- including walling up windows, redesigning churches so that the nuns were hidden from the congregation, ending family visitations, and the confiscation of personal items such as furniture and books.
Sarah Dunant's latest novel is set amid this tumultuous time and is a glimpse into convent life through the eyes of a sixteen year old girl and an older nun who has spent most of her life imprisoned behind the convent walls of Santa Caterina.
Suora Zuana is forced to become a nun when her father, a well-known doctor, dies. At the opening of Sacred Hearts, she has lived more than sixteen years beneath the veil and has established herself as the dispensary mistress. She is a good nun, but her heart belongs to the science of healing. Her joy is found within the infirmary walls where she researches the herbs and remedies from her father's massive tomes, and brings healing to the sisters of the convent. So when Serafina, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Italian aristocrat, arrives at Santa Caterina screaming out her protests, Zuana empathizes with the girl and seeks to help her adjust to the isolated life of a nun.
Sacred Hearts is narrated from the alternating viewpoints of Zuana and Serafina. It explores convent politics, including the shifting balance of power ... and examines the complex relationships between the sisters which include both trust and betrayal. Serafina's high spirit and willful personality are challenged at every turn, especially when she hatches an escape plan to be reunited with her lover outside the walls of Santa Caterina.
Dunant brings to life the beauty and the horror of convent life in this historical novel.She examines the ambivalence which women felt when faced with the isolated existence of a spiritual life.
Oh, but there is beauty in here, too, Zuana thinks: the richness of the earth, the warmth of the bricks, the coolness of the stone. Beauty, space, and, once you stop wanting it to be different, peace, a relief from the madness outside. If someone were to open the doors now, what point would there be in walking out into the world? Where would she go? Who would she be? The house where a young woman called Faustina grew up is home to another family now, while the city that surrounds it is a maelstrom of people who neither know nor care about her. That infinitesimal space in the world that was once hers has long since disappeared -- and to appreciate quiet one must accept less excitement. - from Sacred Hearts, page 223 of the ARC -
I found the contrast -- as well as the similarities -- of the main characters compelling and fascinating. Dunant's decision to write her novel from the point of view of both a young girl entering the convent against her will, and that of an older nun who also rebelled at being forced into convent life, but now had come to accept it ... creates the tension in the novel.
And yet, and yet ... this young woman with her sense of fury and injustice has somehow infiltrated Zuana's life. That Zuana likes her is undeniable, despite her spirit and her truculence -- or perhaps because of them. No doubt she sees something of herself in her; the curiosity as well as the determination. And it is true that had she married, had she become a wife instead of a nun, her own child might indeed now be Serafina's age. How would she feel about her then? It is a painful question. While Santa Caterina has been a good home to her, would she choose to give a daughter up to such a life? And if not, does that mean she is willing to risk bringing down the convent to help her? ? from Sacred Hearts, page 340 of the ARC -
Although the first part of the book was a bit slow, it was necessary to introduce the characters who would later play a deciding role in the outcome. Once I reached the mid-way point of the novel, I found it impossible to put down. Dunant successfully ramps up the drama and conflict and ends her story with a bang.
I read this book for both the Women Unbound and The Social Justice challenges -- and it was perfect for both. This is a book about women's rights (or the lack of them) -- women who had no power and whose lives were carved out by their fathers. Women in the sixteenth century were bought and sold by men and rarely had a say in their futures. It is also a novel which touches on religious freedom. Women forced into convent life were expected to accept their fate and devote their lives to God -- they became brides of Christ and had to give up any dreams of children or a mortal husband. Girls like Serafina had no religious freedom -- and if they protested or attempted escape, the consequences were often dire.
Readers who are interested in historical fiction which center around women's rights and freedoms, will find Sacred Hearts a fascinating read. Full of beautiful imagery, drama and church politics, this is a novel I can recommend.
Four stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".
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