Monday, October 22, 2012

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard Von Bingen. Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. October 2012. 288 pp. ISBN # 9780547567846.

This is as disturbing a story as it is inspiring!  At the age of 8 years old, in order to win dowries for Hildegard's sisters, her mother "tithes" her to a monk's monastery to become an anchorite.  That means that she and another young girl will be placed in two rooms that are completely walled in except for a small grille through which their spiritual advisor can speak to them and through which food and drink of the coarsest nature will be passed at mealtimes.  Jutta with whom Hildegard is imprisoned is pious beyond what one would ever expect in such a young girl, wearing a hair shirt one-piece garment and ultimately a metal belt with thorn-like prongs that she wears around her waist under her gown that already makes her bleed.  

A young monk, Volmar, befriends Hildegard, supplying her with books on medicinal herbs and providing her with paper and books from which she learns to read and write.  She is comforted by the mystical visions she has of The Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears in different forms but always with holy messages. The visions, however, are always accompanied by a form of illness, be it dizziness or headaches.  Jutta eventually dies and now the real life of Hildegard begins. She has a definite gift of hearing beautiful music and divine verses that will eventually make her famous throughout the world. Life is so so painful with constant conflict from the Abbot and other monks.

Eventually she will win the support of other clergy. Other women will join her and soon she will found her own convent and move through relationships that show her clearly how worldly and sinfully proud she really is!  But then her saintly behavior and words of healing wisdom begin to attract pilgrims.  After her first very tough lessons, Hildegard must grow up and realize that "balance" is mandatory; favoritism and uniqueness is heresy, a sign of a traitor, even a sign perhaps of the devil working in her life!

Mary Sharratt paints a portrait of a woman whose emotions and thoughts are the epitome of saintly behavior and attitude and at the same time frail with undeveloped pride and selfishness.  What else could a woman do who was shut away from the world for thirty years - an inconceivable tortured time, at least to this reviewer.  Every step forward to greater holiness is fraught with temptation and even abuse.  It's not pretty at all and yet Hildegard learns that service to others is more important than her own temporal desires.  Mary Sharratt has fashioned a novel that is riddled with problems that make the reader ask innumerable questions and offers few responses except for those trustworthy souls sharing her journey.  What a remarkable novel. Hildegard is a historical work of fiction that may leave you with more questions than answers.  The line between insanity and saintly behavior, thought, and feeling is thin indeed!  Stunning fiction!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Purple Shroud:A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stella Duffy

The Purple Shroud: A Novel of Empress Theodora. Stella Duffy. Penguin Group (USA). September 2012. 416 pp. ISBN #: 9780143122258.

Continuing the life of Theodora, Empress of Constantinople in the 6th Century, from Theodora, Actress, Empress, Whore, Stella Duffy offers the reader an inside look into leading a court and world riddled with constant change!  Theodora never sought her present position, but out of love of Justinian she is determined to do her part to assist him in every possible way.  This is a world where they rule at the people's pleasure and suddenly the people are not pleased, beginning a spate of time called the "Nika" in which the people riot, burn, kill and more.  In this horrific period, Theodora loses her best friend, Sophia, and also loses her sense of trust in the people.  For the rest of her life, she will rule with intrigue and power, using the people as they (honestly admitted) use her!

The next challenge to royalty is one that brooks no favors or sabotage, the plague, a more than formidable, terrifying disease that literally kills thousands per day.  Justinian is not spared and suffers terribly yet survives because of the care of physicians who understand newer techniques of healing from the Middle East. Theodora's persistent care, even under great risk of contracting the dreaded disease, is astounding and poignant!

The vicissitudes of ruling an empire could not be better portrayed as we, the readers, read about the plots, challenges, betrayals, loyalties, and so so much more as August and Augusta (Justinian and Theodora) are motivated only by the best possible service for their country.  Narses, Belisarius, the Cappadocian, as well as innumerable other powerful court woman reveal the essence of true support and fickle self-opportunism.  The issues are both political and religious, but in reality power-plays direct what is publicly known and unknown. Theodora, however, is one very savvy ruler and misses nothing as her supporters assist in thwarting plots that would destroy the throne, if not the country.

Stella Duffy displays an amazing sense of each conflict in a unique manner and most of all in a graceful style that is like an Eastern dance, seductive, vividly active, enigmatic, and romantic.  Because of her deft creation, we know Theodora in two novels as the intelligent, spiritual, political, comic, sexy, romantic, brutally frank, retaliating (never directly) and uniting leader.  The descriptions of art and architecture, churches, food, dress, and more are stylistic and epitomize the rulers' and peoples' love of beauty. 

The above is just a glimmer of the many scenes that truly honor "Theou doron" ("Gift of God") within these pages.  Beautifully told, this novel is a MUST read!!! So, so well crafted, Stella Duffy!!!