Another of Sarah Dunant's historical novels, this book is set in Ferrara in 1570. At the city's Benedictine convent of Santa Caterina, a young and unwilling novice, Serafina, is resisting her induction into convent life. For a while, she works alongside the dispensary sister, Suora Zuana. Zuana has been sixteen years in the convent, entering when the death of her doctor father left her unprotected and unmarriageable. A reluctant entrant herself, she has come to value the regime, its stabilising repetitions and rituals, and the opportunity it has given her to continue her study of medicine and herbalism. For most of the novel, the narrative point of view switches between these two women, as they grapple with the politics and complexities of the convent, the city that holds it, and the changes affecting the Church itself.
This alternating narrative allows Dunant to retell events from two viewpoints, and so doing to ratchet up the suspense and maintain a compelling plot which comprises both deeply personal and wider political matters. The Council of Trent, held in 1563 to address the issues arising from the Reformation, threatened the liberty of convents to govern themselves, to work with local communities, and began to prevent nuns from pursuing study, art, and music. Santa Caterina is famed for its choir and the musical settings composed within the Convent; it produces delicious cakes and sweetmeats for Carnival; and Zuana's remedies are greatly prized by the Bishop, a martyr to his haemorrhoids. Zuana's medicines can be powerfully effective and are valued within the Convent as a means of helping the sisters stay well to do God's will. But there are factions within the convent that seek a greater asceticism and more charismatic exhibitions of faith: ecstasies, visions and stigmata. The current liberal doctrine overseen by the Abbess may be preventing the holy sisters from achieving closeness to God. Serafina will find that she is a battleground for the conflicting forces within the Convent.
Throughout the book, Dunant and her characters use the metaphor of the Convent as a body, a single organism that must be nurtured, balanced and healed as necessary. This metaphor is played out almost literally on the body of Serafina, who will be starved, drugged and purged over the course of the novel. My complaint about the other Dunant novel I've read, The Birth of Venus, related to the cheekiness of the ending: I'm obliged to say that she is at it again in this book, but the final part of the story is perhaps a little more credible here. In any case, it does not detract from a highly enjoyable read. There is also a helpful bibliography for those interested in the history of conventual life.