Friday, November 2, 2012

Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

Title: Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen
Author: Mary Sharratt

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 12th Century / Medieval / Monastic Life / Catholic Mythology / Saints / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Germany / Convents / Religious Conspiracy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (10/9/2012)
Source: NetGalley / Saima Agency Blog Tour

Rating: Looooooooooooooooooooved!
Did I finish?: Another book I zoomed through.
One-sentence summary:
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- feels right to the mood/time of the novel and I love the crackliness of the image.

I'm reminded of...: Nancy Bilyeau, Lynn Cullen, Sandra Gulland

First line: The most ancient and enduring power of women is prophecy, my gift and my curse.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is fabulous hist fic (non royal!) that is a perfect time travel armchair escape with a captivating heroine.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a life long Hildegard fangirl and I really liked Sharratt's novel Summit Avenue

Review: Another book I just loved from the first line. While I was predisposed to love this novel since I adore all things Hildegard, Sharratt's articulation of the woman behind the legend is what made me unable to put this book down. (That, and the reality of what religious monastic life meant for Hildegard. Horrifying!)

Growing up Catholic, I'm still pretty enamored of saints even if I've shed most everything else of that faith tradition. The dramatic saints -- women like Hildegard -- were and still are my favorite. Those radical women, with their shocking theology and passionate worship, made me go through a brief phase of wanting to become a nun myself in hopes of having the same dramatic experiences. (These days, I'm taken with Sister Simone Campbell and those nuns on the bus, but I digress.) I love authors who take on making saints human (like Debra Dean's look at St. Xenia) and I really relish when authors make saints -- those who are ostensibly holier-than-the-rest-of-us -- feel real and human.

Sharratt created a woman I loved immediately -- an unusual young woman from a huge family who craved only her mother's love, Hildegard instead finds herself tithe-d to the church as the handmaiden to Jutta, a wealthy noblewoman's pious daughter. To her horror (and mine), being wrested from her family isn't the worst Hildegard faces, as young Jutta has entered as an anchorite. At eight years old, Hildegard is literally walled in into a two room cell with just a screen to allow food and meager communication with her spiritual adviser. Jutta wears a hair shirt and indulges in self mortification, while Hildegard is blessed with amazing visions and crippling illnesses.

She lives like that for twenty years.

The novel doesn't end there, for after Jutta dies, Hildegard really gets radical. She founds her own convent, gains fame (and infamy) for her writings and music, challenges the clergy and world around her. She is amazing and awful, sinful and soulful, progressive and proud. In short, just awesome.

Sharratt's writing style is clean and clear, and manages to evoke Hildegard's visions in a way that doesn't feel too obscure or cartoon-y. Hildegard herself felt reasonable and historically centered (I can't say whether she was 'accurate' since I know nothing of medieval life) but she responded and behaved in a way that resonated with me and didn't feel anachronistic.

I think even if you're not normally drawn to 'religiously' inspired fiction, consider this, as it is a look at a woman who shaped Christian/Catholic mysticism and lived to her values in a time when women's power was feared and quashed. And also, more people need to see how amazing Hildegard was (the Catholic Church has finally made her a Doctor of the Church!).

27 comments:

  1. This sounds fascinating. I love books that involve religion, even though I'm not religious myself. Thanks for the recommendation :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was sooooooooooooooo good! I'm pretty allergic to very religious stories but this one felt like a good balance of articulating someone's faith without preaching.

      Delete
  2. Yayyy, I'm so excited you loved this! I can't wait till my library hold comes in. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't wait to see your review! It was aaaaaaaaahmazing -- I'm going to have to buy a hard copy because I want a reread.

      Delete
  3. I'm also a Hildegard fangirl from way back (yo), so I've been dying to read this one. Sounds like a can't-miss.

    By the way, have you seen the movie Vision? It's another telling of Hildegard's life and it is beautifully shot and quite moving. It's in German with subtitles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't seen it -- or heard of it -- but will look now -- I'm in love with her. I wanted so badly for Hildegard to be my confirmation saint, but she wasn't a saint at the time, boo!

      Delete
  4. Replies
    1. Anna, it is sooooooooooooooooooooooo good!

      Delete
  5. I love that cover too but not that time period so I'll have to think about the book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What about the time period do you dislike? I ask only b/c maybe there are elements that aren't so prevalent in this book?

      Delete
  6. The Catholic Church fascinates me, especially as someone from the outside looking in. Sounds like a phenomenal read - going on the TBR list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Certainly, having a cultural Catholic connection made me love this novel more but I don't think one need have that to enjoy it -- Sharratt rather beautifully portrays a passionate faith, a restrictive religious structure, and the hypocrisies and beauties that formal religion can have. I found it critical and empathetic in equal part, which made the novel even juicier for me!

      Delete
  7. Twenty years?! I just . . . I can't even. Wow. Hildegard is actually a new figure for me, so I have a feeling I'd have plenty to learn through this one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right?! Agonizing -- I can't even imagine *surviving* that, nevermind becoming an imaginative, passionate, articulate theologian afterwards. This makes a great intro to the woman -- loved the imaginative tidbits and I loved the humanizing of the hagiography familiar to me.

      Delete
  8. I'm so glad to read this review. Mary Sharratt will be sending me a copy of this book, and I really look forward to reading it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so envious you're getting a hardcopy of the book -- I have an e-ARC that's about to expire!

      Delete
  9. I need to get my hands on this one...the reviews are killing me! :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm always torn with books like this - on the one hand I love the historical flavor and stories, but on the other the plight of women then infuriates me!

    ReplyDelete
  11. You always make the books out of my reading zone sound so good....tempting...so tempting...

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wow, what an enthusiastic review! I used to read a lot more medieval fiction than I do now, so I wonder if this would be a good dip back in for me. But like Jill, I get upset about the treatment of women or the way that the Church acts and requires other people to act.

    I think I have another Mary Sharatt book on my shelf somewhere... I will look for it!

    ReplyDelete
  13. There is truly something fascinating about saints and religious ascetic practices etc... maybe interesting exactly because I grew up in an almost opposite kind of religious tradition! The author is coming to our local book festival in February, will have to look into this one.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I just started this one. I'm glad it's going to be a good one!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I just got my hands on a copy of this book - I wasn't sure at first if it was something that would be interested in (because of the religious subject matter and I'm not Catholic) but I do enjoy reading about the not-your-typical stories and she sounds interesting. Thanks for this review - hope I love it too!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hallo Audra,

    My review of Illuminations is on my blog, and I must say, that this book evoked such a strong reaction inside me, one that was both pensive and reflective, as well as serving as a catalyst to ruminate about Hiledgard's visions, whose symbolism and meanings could leave you pondering for hours, rather than the brief surges of thought as you read through her story! :) I was quite impressed with the way in which Sharratt bespoke of her life, and I chose to post my review on a day that truly celebrates her life as one to be reverently observed: All Saint's Day!

    Although I did not grow up in the Catholic church, as I am Protestant, All Saint's Day, and the day prior to it (as I oft saw Halloween more of a celebration of the dead, similar to South American cultures), as introspective days to think about things that are larger in mirth than our everyday experiences. I was thankful that I was selected to post today, to celebrate Hiledgard and to draw a breath of light on her life! I am hopeful that as others' find her story, they will be as taken with her as I have become!

    Saints were always a keen interest of mine, and are even threaded into my fiction, as I have always studied world religions. I never thought that if your personal spiritual path was different from another, that you can not draw out the light of which that tradition can afford.

    Ooh, wow, you've known more about Hilegard!? Perhaps we can engage in a conversation about her then, at some point, as I know your ensconced in your creative muse at the moment! She ignites such a passion for conversation! I appreciated that you gave other books to read, as I will seek those out as I'm able too, as I was curious if there were other writers who wrote in a vein like Sharratt!? I am thankful to see that there are quite a few! :)

    I concur with you, (on the aspects of how saints are perceived), because what endeared me to Hilegard so readily was the fact she was genuine and sincere! She was very honest and upfront about her feelings, thoughts, and musings.

    I will not soon forget her, and I am thankful that I know her,...

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hallo Audra,

    My review of Illuminations is on my blog, and I must say, that this book evoked such a strong reaction inside me, one that was both pensive and reflective, as well as serving as a catalyst to ruminate about Hiledgard's visions, whose symbolism and meanings could leave you pondering for hours, rather than the brief surges of thought as you read through her story! :) I was quite impressed with the way in which Sharratt bespoke of her life, and I chose to post my review on a day that truly celebrates her life as one to be reverently observed: All Saint's Day!

    Although I did not grow up in the Catholic church, as I am Protestant, All Saint's Day, and the day prior to it (as I oft saw Halloween more of a celebration of the dead, similar to South American cultures), as introspective days to think about things that are larger in mirth than our everyday experiences. I was thankful that I was selected to post today, to celebrate Hiledgard and to draw a breath of light on her life! I am hopeful that as others' find her story, they will be as taken with her as I have become!

    Saints were always a keen interest of mine, and are even threaded into my fiction, as I have always studied world religions. I never thought that if your personal spiritual path was different from another, that you can not draw out the light of which that tradition can afford.

    Ooh, wow, you've known more about Hilegard!? Perhaps we can engage in a conversation about her then, at some point, as I know your ensconced in your creative muse at the moment! She ignites such a passion for conversation! I appreciated that you gave other books to read, as I will seek those out as I'm able too, as I was curious if there were other writers who wrote in a vein like Sharratt!? I am thankful to see that there are quite a few! :)

    I concur with you, (on the aspects of how saints are perceived), because what endeared me to Hilegard so readily was the fact she was genuine and sincere! She was very honest and upfront about her feelings, thoughts, and musings.

    I will not soon forget her, and I am thankful that I know her,...

    ReplyDelete