“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