The Back of the Book: 1570 in the Italian city of Ferrara, and the convent of Santa Caterina is filled with noble women who are married to Christ because many cannot find husbands outside. Enter sixteen-year-old Serafina, ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, howling with rage and determined to escape.
Her arrival disrupts the harmony and stability of the convet, which is overseen by Madonna Chiara, a abess as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. She gives the novice Serafina over to the care of Suora Zuana, the scholarly nun who runs the dispensary and treats all manner of sickness, from pestilence and melancholy to self-inflicted wounds. As an unlikely relationship builds between the two women, other figures stand watching and waiting, most notably the novice mistress, Suora Umiliana, a crusader for even stricted piety, and the mysterious Suora Magdalena, incarcerated in her cell, with a history of ecstasy and visions.
Wile on the other side of the great walls counter-reformation forces in the Church are pushing for repressive change, inside, Serafina’s spirit and defiance ignite a fire that threatens to engulf the whole convent.
Sacred Hearts is a novel about power, creativity and passion – both of the body and of the soul. Hidden history brought alive by a wonderful storyteller, renowned for her Italian Renaissance novels.
Why (and how) I got this book: I discovered Sarah Dunant one night when, finding I could not sleep, I turned on Radio 4 to find this book being read. I was utterly captivated and resolved to seek out her books at the earliest opportunity. This is a library book.
NotJustLaura’s Review: It took me far longer than I expected to read this book. I think, perhaps, I just didn’t want to leave the world of Santa Caterina:
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it is still a beautiful world.
What can I say, now that I have left it? Ms Dunant tells us many stories in this book – it is not sufficient to say ‘This is the story of Serafina’ or that of Zuana or Umiliana or Magdalena. This is the story of certain months at the Benedictine Convent of Santa Caterina. Perhaps that will do. Serafina is there against her will. Zuana learns to love. Umiliana learns humility and Magdalena? Magadalena will always be a bit of a mystery.
Ms Dunant’s narration of these women’s stories is truly masterful. She is clear, concise and utterly, utterly compelling. I feel that I have known each of the women intimately. This is a book whose echoes will be with me for a long time to come and I am only sorry that I will not have the pleasure of reading it for the first time again.
Reread August 2011: It is very rare for me to reread a work of fiction. What is the point when one can remember the ending? But I noticed this book on the library shelf just last week and found it calling me back to the rich world of Santa Caterina. I’m so glad I visited again and shall have to see about finding a copy for my own Permanent Collection.