Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book review - Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant

How do you choose what to read next? Some titles jump off the shelf, don't they? Others are recommended. Then there are those worthy books you feel you really must read. But, after that, how do you actually choose from all the thousands of titles out there?

When you are a librarian the pressure is worse. We advise others on their choice of reading material. To this end, we read reviews, listen to author interviews, and attend festivals, keeping our ears to the polished linoleum of the publishing world.

Here at City of Boroondara, we have another secret weapon and here today, I am going to reveal it to you.

It's called shelving time.

If you are a regular user of this library service, you will have noticed that our staff shelve for forty five minutes twice a day. If you have been around for a quite a while, you may have seen one of us, a book open, eyes focussed, our black shelving trolley all but forgotten. This is the power of shelving time. If you stick around long enough, you will notice some of those books don't get shelved. They stay on our trolleys. At the end of the day, they are carried out of the door in bulging library bags.

This is how I found Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant.  I had read reviews and interviews about Dunant's work. I knew she was an international best-selling author of historical fiction, my favourite genre, that her work was experimental in its treatment of time and space - and edgy in its use of multiple plots and viewpoints. But for some reason, I had never got round to reading any of it.

Until recently.

I am not sure what drew my eye this time. The Nun on the cover, perhaps? I'll be confess, I have a weakness for convent books. To my mind, they fall into the same category as the boarding school books, I read as a child. I always wanted to go to boarding school - I blame Enid Blyton for that entirely. And though I have never had any desire to be a nun, there is also something about the cloistered world that holds a fascination for me. 

I opened the cover and read the historical note:
'By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply within Catholic Europe that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched - for a much lesser price - into convents. Historians estimate that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns.
'Not all of them went willingly ...

Okay, she had me. A convent, a young woman ripped from an illicit love affair, a scholarly nun who runs a dispensary (shades of Brother Cadfael). I decided to give it a try. Here is how it starts:  those few paragraphs, you can see some of the major themes emerging - motherhood, sexuality, genius, suffering and the political manoeuvrings of the counter-reformation church. Once I started Sacred Hearts, it was difficult to it down. The characters were likeable, the situation credible, and the outcome although maybe not completely realistic, was very satisfying. I will be keeping an eye out for Sarah Dunant's other books during shelving time.
Written by Liz Corbett.

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