I owe this book to one of you, my readers. Who? I believe it was a discussion of “nun books” that prompted this recommendation, and I am deeply, deeply grateful, because Sacred Hearts ticks a lot of boxes for me. First, of course, the nun thing. (I’m not alone in this fascination. More below.) Second, it’s profoundly absorbing historical fiction — the kind of book that sings out to you as you walk past, attempting to wring some productivity out of the day, which would not include lying on the sofa sucking down another novel. Third, Sarah Dunant is working with some really interesting ideas here and she has the good sense to leave them prickly and unresolved, while at the same time providing a satisfying resolution to the book.
OK, nuns. A closed community is often fascinating for an author. (Related categories: the country-house novel; the boarding-school novel.) The intense interactions, power struggles, emotional tensions and institutional encouragement of self-examination can make for a great tale. (Dunant doesn’t make much of the potential for sexual shenanigans aside from a polite acknowledgement that these things do sometimes occur: this is not what interests her.) Finally, the devotional life paradoxically courts self-forgetfulness as well as self-examination. And sometimes this loss of self, or ecstasy, can look a lot like hysteria.
Sacred Hearts is set in 16th-century Ferrara, in the convent of Santa Caterina. The chief protagonist, Suora Zuana, is the dispensary sister, which is to say the medical officer. Dunant sets her terms early: this is a place where “so many noblewomen of Ferrara find space to pursue their own ways to live inside God’s protection.” That is to say, in a community where they do not live according to men’s rhythms or in men’s service. The story is set into motion when a new novice is admitted to the convent, a rich girl from Milan who was not consulted about her fate and spends her first night screaming and breaking down her cell. Zuana is drawn to Serafina’s spirit and intelligence; then she is drawn into Serafina’s drama. Which soon becomes the drama of the entire convent because, as Dunant points out, an enclosed community is a delicate organism. Moreover Dunant eventually situates Santa Caterina’s internal struggles against the brisk, chilly wind of the Counter-Reformation which threatens to do away with many of the sisters’ most cherished comforts, liberties, and traditions.
And to add to this, there’s all kinds of traditional drama. (Along with some nun-novel staples, like stigmata.) Knife wounds, poisons, itinerant troubadours. I was especially impressed by Dunant’s account of an eating disorder, when one of the young and high-strung sisters takes her penance of fasting a little too far. For any woman who’s ever had a tense relationship with what she eats, this will feel familiar.
Best thing? There are two earlier Dunant novels set in Renaissance Italy and they are now on my Kindle.