December 2009

It might not be surprising to find a founding patron of the Orange Prize for Fiction writing about women in a 16th century Italian convent, but you might be surprised by the life she describes.  Though cloistered, the sisters contribute directly to their city’s social, artistic, scholastic, commercial and political, as well as spiritual, climate.  It is essential that the abbess, Madonna Chiara, is a worldly leader as well as spiritual head.  With their sophisticated lifestyle threatened by the Catholic Church’s Tridentine reforms, the Abbess must tread a fine diplomatic line to maintain their status and safeguard their interests.

Into this setting falls a 14 year old girl, still madly in love with her music tutor, compelled by her powerful family to become a nun. Determined to escape, the novice Serefina risks her life and the convent’s position as well.

Through a varied cast, Dunant empathetically portrays the thoughts, enthusiasms and inspirations of women living under pressures very different from ours today. An impressive bibliography gives an inkling of the dedicated study which has gone into this, the third of her novels set in the period. Among the many evocative sights and sounds are details of herbal remedies and Renaissance fashion. And on you can find a taste of the gorgeous music that played a central role in these communities: a group called Musica Secreta, having helped with Dunant’s research, has released an album of the music recorded in a 16th century English church.

The general opinion of the Book Circle was very favourable. Though the action is catalyzed by Serefina’s adolescent single-mindedness, it is Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress, who is certainly the more interesting, and through her mature eyes most of the story takes place. The characterizations may have been marred by some 21st century feminist idealism, and a surfeit of detail early on did not help the plot move quickly, but its measured pace is perhaps an apt reflection of a more contemplative life and it allowed the author space to paint a vivid portrait.  Undoubtedly it was an enjoyable read that provoked lively discussion on a variety of topics.

We meet again on Thursday 7th January when we shall read the play Noises Off by Michael Frayn.

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