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Friday, 19 February 2010

Books - Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Star rating – 8/10

Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, recently featured as a star read on More 4’s TV Book Club, is set in a convent in Renaissance Italy. It is told from the dual perspectives of two of the nuns, Serafina - a new arrival who is taken there as a novice against her will, and Zuana – the mistress of the dispensary who befriends her and tries to steer Serafina through the trials of coming to terms with convent life, as she herself had to do many years before.

As a story it is very fast moving and exciting, with great attention to detail as Dunant vividly paints for us the picture of convent life with all its sights, smells and intrigue. But it is also fascinating from the point of view of educating us about the place that convents played in Italy, in the lives of young woman whose families could not afford dowries for more than one of their daughters. Any young woman in such a position, or who was considered unlikely to make a suitable marriage due to disability of disfigurement, was destined to spend her days in a convent, like it or loathe it. And it is in this context, of many women forced into a religious order, not through choice, but through circumstance of family wealth and physical appearance, that the story unfolds.

Serafina is only 16 when she is forced to enter the convent of Saint Caterina in the city of Ferrara, and to leave her lover behind. She howls in her cell in protest, and is determined not to go along with the rules of the order, no matter what the cost. The plight of the young novice reminds Zuana how she herself was forced to enter the convent after the death of her father, as there was no respectable way for a young woman to make her way in the world alone. Zuana survives, and eventually thrives, by continuing the work that her father taught her in the outside world inside the closed confines of Saint Caterina – she becomes in charge of the medicines and health of her sisters. She is not particularly religious, demonstrated by her thoughts about how she could have saved Christ from his wounds by her medicinal skills and healing potions.

There is never any doubt that Serafina will escape from the convent, although Dunant does not make it obvious how she will achieve this. She is a celebrated singer, with the voice of an angel. The relationship between the two women is revealed in a very humane and sympathetic way. The internal politics of the convent are a constant backdrop to their work, even if the ending does seem a little contrived.

Dunant knows how to keep her readers hooked. This is exciting and informative, stuff, but not necessarily a great advert for convents of the day, or the life of a Renaissance nun – nor indeed should it be.

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