Here’s a book I couldn’t imagine myself reading until I actually did. A story of nuns in 16th century Italy.
But it came highly recommended in two book clubs – the Ship of Fools one and the TV one. I guess I was looking for something a little different and it’s certainly that.
So a bit of a gamble – did it pay off?
Yes. This is a really enjoyable book. It opens up a world I never really knew existed. I knew of course the convents existed. I hadn’t realised that in those days the existence of dowries meant that well to do families could usually only afford to marry off one of their daughters and so convents became dumping grounds for the others – the less good looking, or more independently-minded or intelligent, or generally just less marriageable. Dumping grounds is a little unfair but what it meant was the the convents were full of women who hadn’t so much chosen a vocation as become resigned to a fate.
And it turns out it could be not such a bad one. Inside the walls of the nunnery there was a certain amount of freedom and independence. A fraction of the money that would have gone to a husband’s family went to the convent and this meant they were in some way indebted to powerful families – so that conditions for those nuns at least were kept tolerable.
The shadow in the background is the coming of a tightening of restrictions based as a consequence of the Council of Trent. Santa Caterina, the convent of the novel, has so far avoided this clamping down but the desire not to draw undue attention to itself is one of the motivations for a key character in the book.
For about the first half, the book is mostly scene setting and getting to know the characters. I’ve seen people describe this as slow but I didn’t find it so. We follow Serafina, a new novice, who has joined very much against her will, and through her eyes we learn about the world of the convent. We also follow Suora Zuana – the convent’s dispensary sister. She’s a fascinating character – she has in many ways a more modern, sceptical, rational outlook but she is still a product of her age.
About half way through a major incident occurs and what follows in a gripping thriller, the pace quickening and not letting up until the end.
9/10 – a surprisingly gripping read, and a glimpse of another world.