Skillfully interweaving historical fact with psychological insight and vivid imagination, Sharratt's redemptive novel, Illuminations, brings to life one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages: Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. Offered to the Church at the age of eight, Hildegard was entombed in a small room where she was expected to live out her days in silent submission as the handmaiden of a renowned but disturbed young nun, Jutta von Sponheim.
Instead, Hildegard rejected Jutta's masochistic piety and found comfort and grace in studying books, growing herbs, and rejoicing in her own secret visions of the divine. When Jutta died some thirty years later, Hildegard broke out of her prison with the heavenly calling to speak and write about her visions and to liberate her sisters and herself from the soul-destroying anchorage.
Riveting and utterly unforgettable, Illuminations is a deeply moving portrayal of a woman willing to risk everything for what she believed.
©2012 Mary Sharratt (P)2012 Tantor
"[A] gripping story." (Publishers Weekly)
trying to see the world with my ears
I give this an extra star for its subject. The author manages to present some aspects of 12th century worldview but frequently slips into contemporary YA banter. What seems most anachronistic is Hildegard’s self-awareness.
Except for pivotal events, the details of Hildegard’s life necessarily need to come from imagination; however, the author seems to choose the more traumatic aspects that resonate today on which to hang the tale. She also seems to have chosen to make some of the supporting characters more villainous than history suggests. Just as the wimples of medieval nuns could not be as neat and snowy white as the one pictured on the "cover", so this novel is a modern projection, and a selective one.
The author does capture some of Hildegard’s spirit, and religion serving patriarchy is still worth writing about, especially so soon after Hildegard’s elevation to Doctor of the RC Church while its modern day excommunication of supporters of women continues.
I suppose if you regularly read historical fiction with a medieval setting, this could be a gem – Writing this period must be challenging. This novel is not Umberto Eco or even Ellis Peters, however. I can consume mediocre stuff set in other centuries, but maybe because I’m not a fan of this period in fiction, the story just made me wince frequently and select fast narration.
The author brings to light the life of a fascinating and amazing historical character. Worth listening to.
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