Thursday, 11 March 2010

'Sacred Hearts' by Sarah Dunant exceeds expectations

I finished reading this book a couple of weeks back and have yet to write a review of my thoughts. So here it will be.

I picked up the book courtesy of the raving compliments the panel from the TV Book Club lavished it with, otherwise it would never have been a book I would have read. The only pulling theme was the idea of sisterhood.

Needless to say, I was entranced from the first few chapters. Sarah Dunant brilliantly weaves a tapestry of the details of convent life without feeling you have necessarily slipped back in time. You appear to be immediately there, within the confined space of this place and whether this in part due to the fact that it is written in the present tense, it achieves the engaging hook.

What's more, I love a book that promises more than it lets on. As Dunant commented herself, the skeletal premise is based around whether or not the new novice to the convent, Serafina, will escape or succumb to accepting being a nun for life. Dunant never allows us to stray far from the turmoil and shocking injustice that Serafina feels at being tricked into the life of the nun; it's not thrown in our faces and the details emerge slowly with only implied hints, yet it underlines the days that roll on by as the novice comes out of her rage; it seeps through the seemingly impenetrable wall of the convent.

The highlight of the book is encompassed in the character of Sister Zuana, the dispensary mistress who unconsciously forms a bond with Serafina, whom she is charged to look after initially. The details of the various healing concoctions and methods of the time, (being 1500s Italy) are meticulously outlined with the same vigour the sister herself employs in her work. Her characters also highlights the dilemma between religion and science and consequently, the humanity that is needed to heal, versus the reserve the life of a nun requires.

The rest of the nuns are as brilliantly painted and there's a sense of madness in the more senior ones, all individual in their own bizarre natures. Despite the camaraderie shown at times, you get a sense that the place is still not inducive to the stability of mind or spirit. Essentially it's a power play that rules the comings and goings.

Lastly, the book's last hundred or so pages are simply riveting. There is a brilliant twist, (though I do not like to use this word)- rather a character defies our expectations, so much so that I was cheering at the book at various intervals. Thank god I was reading it alone otherwise I would have received rather strange looks. The ending is just as brilliant and supremely clever in a Shakespearean stroke of genius (quite literally!)

All this without missing the presence of a male character.

RATING: 9/10 stars.

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