Book Review: Sacred Hearts
Posted July 4, 2010on:
Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2009, 426 pp.
This is a novel about women’s relationships, set in the year 1570 inside a Benedictine convent in Italy. The drama unfolds between a skillful, powerful, political abbess; an independent sister who is a gifted healer with medicinal herbs; and a novice incarcerated against her will while her lover awaits on the outside. It is a great story set inside a fascinating context, well written, well researched and well told.
The main plot centers around the young novice, and how her despair inside the convent will be received and managed by various sisters. The future of this one young woman becomes battlefield on which the various conflicts over modernity are played out in the convent. The backdrop for the story is the tumultuous reality of the late Italian Renaissance, including the Council of Trent and its reactions to the Protestant Reformation. The world of patronage and isolation is falling apart, and the church is reacting by digging its heels deeper into practices of the past. The struggle inside the convent mirrors this external reality: is the path to salvation found in increased piety, or in adaptation and political cunning?
Dunant creates a world inside the convent. All the novel’s action takes place inside, and there are no male characters in the entire novel. It is a world broad and deep and thick with detail and action. She takes us behind the uniformity of veil and habit to introduce us to a diverse cast of characters with their own quirks, skills, motives and personalities. While the ending was satisfying, I did not want to bid farewell to the characters or the life-world Dunant had created for them. I wanted to keep inhabiting the convent, to dwell longer with these intriguing women.
I look forward to reading more from Dunant in the future.