The Altarpiece inaugurates a series by first-time novelist Sarah Kennedy. Set in Tudor England, this story essentially lifts up the layers of English society at the time and shows how Henry VIII’s break from Rome and subsequent religious reformation affected the average person living at the time. The book opens in 1535. Catherine Havens is a young nun with a talent for healing who has lived in Mount Grace Abbey since she was abandoned as a child. Catherine’s world is being dismantled, as abbeys and monasteries are being ordered to surrender valuables over to the crown. They are also expected to take vows against the Catholic faith and testify to royal religious authority. On the heels of the arrival of the king’s men at Mount Grace, the abbey’s altarpiece has gone missing, a mysterious death in town is causing a disturbance, and an epidemic of smallpox is spreading.
For a relatively short first installment, a great many things are happening in The Altarpiece: there is mystery, action, and even some romance. Kennedy has managed to create some interesting characters in the sisters of Mount Grace, particularly in Catherine, who is both intelligent and resourceful. She finds herself torn between her vows to the church and her desire for more in life. Although the mystery and search for the missing altarpiece provide the story with needed momentum, it is the more subtle tensions of the tale that are most interesting. It is intriguing how the nuns Christina, Veronica, Ann, and Catherine struggle and come to terms with the fact that their way of life is changing and may never be the same. Kennedy also deserves credit for approaching the period from the refreshing perspective of the devout.