"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Sacred Hearts

This is another book from my historical novel syllabus, and the first I've been disappointed in. The story is set entirely in a Benedictine convent in 16th century Italy, and the main narrator is the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, but her voice is interspersed with the voice of Serafina, the newest arrival at the convent, who has been put there against her will. According to the author's note, this was a common practice at the time - women from various social strata and with different problematic backgrounds were forced into convent life. That's one of the novels historical revelations. The other is that these convents were not the stark, spartan cells one might imagine, but could be places for women to practice art - singing or composing in particular, for religious music - or, as in Zuana's case, to pursue the study of medicine.

Dunant sets her story at a time when that way of life - the relative freedom allowed to nuns within convent walls - is in danger of being destroyed by fiercer regulations and more of an emphasis on religious devotion. Moments of transition in history are always interesting, but Dunant actually places much more weight on the plot surrounding Serafina's resistance to convent life and Zuana's spritual/moral doubts about how to help Serafina.

It wasn't enough of a story to maintain my interest through three or four hundred pages, especially because Dunant never allows us to leave the convent or the women's minds. This really gives the novel a sense of claustrophobia and repression, because the nuns are cut off from the outside world and from their own impulses and desires and thoughts. They can never talk honestly to each other because there are so many rules about which thoughts are pious and which require penance. And even Serafina, whose rebelliousness at first brings some variety and relief, eventually starts to succumb to the influence of some of the most violently pious nuns.

This device - the closed world, the women sharing this intense relationship with each other and with their god - could have made a really interesting book, but Dunant doesn't take it far enough. She never really gets into her characters' minds enough to convince you of what it would really be like to live in a convent, or even in an era when religion was such an important part of life, a given, whether you were in a convent or not. Instead of real psychological study, we get a lot of repetitive reflections on god, regularly interrupted with sensational plot twists. These really undercut the effect of the claustrophobia, because while we're supposed to be sympathizing with the women's self-denial and suffering, Dunant gives us everything we want - a love story, an escape attempt, tense politics, a mystical nun, even a kind of chase scene through the convent at night.

It's funny, I thought I was going to really enjoy this as an easy read after so many bizarre, experimental novels, but I got really frustrated because when I indulge in an easy read, I want it to be a really good easy read. If for some reason, you can't get enough of renaissance novels or love reading about religious life, I guess you might enjoy this (quite a few people in my class loved it). Otherwise, I advise you choose a different book.

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