Dunant reliably produces well-crafted and beautifully nuanced novels, a writer with a particular affinity for the struggles of women through the centuries, especially Renaissance Italy. In 1570, the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferraro, Italy, is cloistered from the outside world, separated by thick walls and locked iron gates. But the Council of Trent harbors concerns for the nuns: the Counter-Reformation has imposed strict new rules that will further curtail the sisters’ daily lives.
Behind the convent walls, the nuns dedicate themselves to prayer and sacrifice but are not relieved of human temptations, even those who bask in the light of the spirit. Abbess Madonna Chiara juggles politics with the best interests of her charges while keeping worldly concerns at bay; she has “lived in the convent all her life but seems to know more about man than of God.” Eyes raised to heaven, even these holy women stumble as they battle personal demons, envy, stubbornness, willfulness and pride.
Inside the convent, the atmosphere is palpable with the intensity of good women and human frailties. Suora Magdalena is confined to her cell, where she welcomes the rapture of holy visitations; the fierce mistress of novices; Suora Umiliana, is “ambitiously pious,” believing that starving the body feeds the soul; and Suora Zuana gathers herbs from her gardens, keeping careful journals of cures that aid the sisters physical discomforts. But even Suora Zuana is unable to relieve the pain of the new novice, Serafina, who howls against the cruelty of her fate.
Serafina has been given to the church by her father, “young enough to have a future to look forward to. Old enough to know that it is being cut short.” With the voice of an angel, Serafina is courted by Suora Perseveranza, who embraces “the music of suffering” coveted by Suora Umiliana, who believes in “the exhilaration of pain” and the object of much concern for Suora Zuana, who worries that the girl may die from the weight of her sorrow.
“Words. They came from my mouth, not my heart.” Over Serafina, the battle is waged. Eventually the desperately unhappy novice appears to make peace with her predicament, silently raging, feigning obedience while plotting her escape. Nor are the servants of God immune to the petty jealousies that erupt, the gossip, the curiosity that distracts the nuns from their holy offices. Worldly innocence makes the sisters vulnerable to the grandiosity of visions, of miracles.
Dunant beautifully portrays Serafina’s despair and the insular nature of convent life. Like a night garden, these women bloom and wither in a rarified environment, one where the spirit battles with pride, where the vow of obedience is critical to a hallowed life, God is pursued like a lover and faith manifests in holiness or fanaticism. As Zuana struggles to discover God’s will in her ministrations to Sarafina, other agendas are afoot, the secret ambitions of one who craves a convent without music or worldly distractions, an aged nun who floats between the living and the dead, and the abbess who must keep her charges from harmful excesses.
Dunant translates this singular existence in a powerful tale that makes familiar the daily rituals of prayer and sacrifice, the yearning to be one with God. The hushed corridors are filled with shadows, barely flickering candles, the whisperings of nuns beseeching God’s grace, angelic voices raised in song - and the one wrong note, the novice who suffers for what she has lost. In a beautifully wrought tale of exquisite intelligence, some prayers are answered.