Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

“The words came from my mouth, not from my heart.” These are the words of the angry young novice Serafina upon her induction into the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara. She is befriended by Suora Zuana, the convent’s infirmary mistress, and becomes the older woman’s assistant. Zuana feels an odd bond with the volatile young woman, but little does she know that Serafina hides a deep secret, one that will affect more than just herself. The blurb on the back of the novel talks about the counter-Reformation, but the book is less about that than the lives of the nuns inside the walls of the convent, constrained as they are by the rigid schedule of religious life.

I really, really enjoyed this novel. It’s a powerful book, well-written, subtle yet explosive at the same time. It’s a difficult novel to explain, exactly—you just have to read it yourself to find out. The relationship between Zuana and Serafina is complicated and hard to explain, too; I really enjoyed how the author plays these opposites against one another: the practical, level-headed infirmary mistress with the angry teenage novice. At the same time, though, they have a lot in common.

The novel is written in the present tense, which was a little jarring (the book is set in 1570, and I don’t normally take well to historical novels written in the present tense), but it sends a powerful messages, about the conflict between body and soul, and the role that miracle and faith play in the lives of the nuns of Santa Caterina. In all, a really good book, one that was hard for me to put down. I’ve now read four of Dunant’s novels—The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, this book, and one of her contemporary mysteries—and I’d say that Sacred Hearts is up there with The Birth of Venus as one of her best.

Also reviewed by: The Burton Review, Devourer of Books, The Boston Bibliophile, Books 'N Border Collies, S Krishna's Books, Historical Boys, Medieval Bookworm


Meghan said...

I'm so glad to hear that you liked this so much! I have it in my review pile waiting for me. =)

- Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Anna said...

This one is in my stack, too, and I've heard good things about it so far. I'm curious about the present tense; I've never read any historical fiction like that.

Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

I have this one in the TBR pile and hope to get to it soon. thanks for a great review.

Marie Burton said...

I also devoured this book, I loved getting lost in this story. I noticed the tense also.. And when I was writing my review I found myself reverting to that style. It made it a hard review to write.
You did well in your review! I have Venus on my shelf to read, and now I am more excited to get around to it. I was surprised at the list of books that she has authored, I will have to look for those other ones also as I was only aware of two others.
My review is up at The Burton Review.

Gwendolyn B. said...

I've been looking forward to reading this one -- it's good to know you enjoyed it so much!

Marg said...

I didn't read the whole review because I am expecting to receive this shortly, but I am glad to see from your last couple of lines that this was so good!

Alyce said...

I'm so glad you liked this one! I've really been looking forward to reading it.

Booklogged said...

I really like Dunant's work, except for In the Company of Courtesans which I quit reading half way through. I'm looking forward to reading this one.


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