The girls rubs the back of her hand roughly across her nose to stop the stream of tears and mucus. “You don’t understand.” And now there is a furious pleadingt in the voice. “I should not be here. I am put in against my will.”
Zuana sees her, kneeling in a whirlpool of velvet before the altar, head bowed while the priest guides her through the litany of assent.
“What about the vows you spoke in chapel?” she says gently. “Words. I said words, that’s all. They came from my mouth, not my heart.” [p.11, ARC]
Sarah Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts is set in a sixteenth century Italian convent. Dowaries to secure ‘good’ marriages for young women have become so inflated that most families cannot afford to marry off more than one daughter. As a result, convents have become a convenient place to send those daughters ‘left behind.’ Santa Caterina’s convent is the beneficiary of many of these young women and the fortunes of their rich and influential families. In return for taking them in, the convent recieves a sum of money for support and puts the young women to work within its walls. Santa Caterina has become known for its gifted women’s choir.
Sacred Hearts tells the story of an angry novice, Serafina, who has been placed at the convent far from her home against her will. The dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, a veteran of life at Santa Caterina, is charged with calming the rebellious young woman and assimilating her into life at the convent. Their relationship is complex — Serafina’s rebellious nature challenges not only Zuana, but the other sisters who appear to have made peace with their cloistered lives and their roles in society. Serafina is certain that her hometown lover will appear to rescue her from her prison and Zuana must decide whether she will assist in this rebellion or stand by the societal and religious pressures that require unmarried women to live within the convent walls.
Dunant’s writing is, as ever, an enjoyable and easy read. Readers who enjoyed her previous novels (The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan) will enjoy this addition to her work.