Sacred Hearts

Written by Sarah Dunant
Review by Luan Gaines

In Renaissance Italy the Council of Trent moves to purge convent life of the contamination of the outside world, the Counter-Reformation imposing further oppression on already marginalized religious communities. Meanwhile, behind the high walls and locked iron gates of the convent of Santa Caterina in Ferrara, prayer and hard work define the hours of the day, angelic voices raised in heavenly praise. Abbess Madonna Chiara ruthlessly guards her charges, juggling convent politics and secular interests on behalf of those in her care. In contrast, the piously ambitious mistress of novices, Suora Umiliana, yearns for transcendence from earthly restraints, convinced that starving the body feeds the soul.

Dispensary mistress Suora Zuana cultivates herbs to relieve the sisters’ physical suffering, conscientiously attending the newly arrived novice, Serafina, who howls against her fate, stripped of love, her future interred behind convent walls. It is over Serafina that the battle is waged, a confrontation of pragmatism and piety, the order’s law of obedience sorely tested as the novice flails against a life she has not chosen and those who would manipulate her gifts to their own ends.

Dunant treads fearlessly the terrain of the soul and the temptations of the heart, a place suffused with worship yet tainted by fanaticism, where miracles flirt with gossip, holiness riddled with human flaws. Richly nuanced characters inhabit this rarified world where the Divine is avidly pursued, each failed test a mark against the soul. Strong women beget passionate conflicts, Serafina at the heart of all, an innocent pawn hollowed by submission, broken by despair. Sacred Hearts is a harrowing excavation of spiritual conceits, a collision of body and soul, an exquisite balance of rage and ecstasy, of love and hope, of dark secrets and unexpected grace.