The Infidel’s Garden
I am not a fan of first person narratives in present tense. In my experience, few authors can deliver the richness of character required to lift such narratives, so it was with some hesitation I approached Ms Banwell’s novel. It took two pages – at most – for me to realise that here was a character so complex, so enigmatic, I did not care about narrative person – or tense.
The Infidel’s Garden is the story of Soheila, born in Andalucía in the late 15th century. Soheila is a bastard, born of a Moorish mother and an itinerant Christian father. Soheila is raised as a Muslim, but when she is ten, calamity strikes. Everything she took for granted in her life is trampled to dust, and instead she ends up in a Dutch convent, there to be raised as a good Christian, and baptised Marjit. But in her heart, Soheila remains always a Muslim. Always.
The convent, the little Dutch town Hertogenbosch, the interiors of the houses – Ms Banwell presents us with a vivid depiction that teems with as much life as a Brueghels painting. Things smell, there is noise and texture, elaborate meals and a certain Archdeacon Solin, expounding repeatedly on the evil of infidels such as Marjit, now serving as a maid in a wealthy household.
Marjit walks on eggshells, navigating a society replete with bigoted Catholics, the somewhat disturbed Hieronymus Bosch, jealous women – and Pieter. For the first time in her life, Marjit lusts for a man – unfortunately, Pieter is not only the master of the household, he is also a devout Christian.
Things are further complicated when young women turn up murdered. Marjit has reasons to suspect the Archdeacon, but such accusations are dangerous to make – especially if you’re a potential infidel. Marjit’s life takes a turn for the worse – one harrowing experience after the other follows, and as things unravel I am left holding my breath, captivated by Ms Banwell’s complex plotting as much as by her writing.
A very enjoyable read, from the very first to the last page!