Book Tour Review: Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Title: Illuminations
Author: Mary Sharratt
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 275 (hardcover edition)
Published: October 2012
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 5/5

Illuminations chronicles the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), who was tithed to the church at the age of eight and 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 three decades 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. 
Like Anita Diamant’s portrayal of Dinah in The Red Tent, Mary Sharratt interweaves historical research with psychological insight and vivid imagination to write an engaging and triumphant portrait of a courageous and remarkably resilient woman and the life she might have lived. Deeply affecting, Illuminations is a testament to the power of faith, love, and self-creation.

As a particularly and unrepentantly non-religious person, I don't get around to reading a lot of books solely about saints, Popes, nuns or other religious figures. But am I ever so glad I put that initial reaction aside and tried Mary Sharatt's utterly fascinating book about a twelfth century nun named Hildegard von Bingen. Though this may be a quieter story with a less splashy conflict than other novels, Illuminations still manages to be impossible to put down and an immersive, detailed, based-on-historical-fact chronicle. With a distinctive first-person POV and a great narrator, veteran author Mary Sharatt makes reading Hildegard's impressive story an experience.

Sharatt ably creates a vibrantly real life for this Germanic legend. I mean, somehow this is a book that remains insanely interesting for a life about a nun who was walled-in in a tiny two room space with little outside contact. For thirty-eight YEARS. Despite that large obstacle, in the early chapters, Sharratt smartly uses character and small tensions, from religious to simple distaste, to keep Hildegard's life with Jutta interesting. Part reluctant companionship, part necessity, part sympathy, part pure revulsion, the relationship between Jutta and her unwilling oblate is constantly changing -- sometimes for the better, but more often not. More of a foil for Hildegard than a true/pure antagonist, Jutta's evolution and character depth are explored rather well over the course of the novel during which she is around.

Once Hildegard is free(er) and unconstrained by harsh rules set down by the "saintly" Jutta, she really evolves into a character worthy of notice. When she begins to grow in her role as magistra/abbess to her spiritual "daughters" she emerges as a complicated but utterly authentic woman. Though she had unique ecclesiastical woes in addition to her struggles for independence and freedom, she was inherently sympathetic in her many struggles in a male-dominated field. Her story is so striking and compelling - from  being essentially sold to the church to pay for her sisters' dowries, held in a small space for years, years of hunger and deprivation, her subsequent struggle to control her life, her staunch and unflinching refusal to give in -- it sounds like fiction. But so much of the story in Illuminations is based on historical truth. I may have a bit of a history-crush on Hildegard. She lived almost a thousand years ago and the voice given to her here in Illuminations is still able to captivate.  

The comparisons between this and Diamant's classic The Red Tent seem supremely appropriate -- both of these novels feature important female religious figures but each succeeds in portraying their subject matter as wholly human despite their larger-than-life stories now. Though the narrative plays out against a lesser-known and religious background, it's the trials and relationships amongst the characters that are the highpoint of the novel. Giving more focus to lesser-known female figures is a great thing and I would love to see more about Hildegard or someone like her. 

Hildegard's strong regard for the women under her care was refreshing to read about, though predictably, not without its own set of problems and concerns.  It led her to do things she hadn't expected, it led her down dangerous and unknowable paths, but she lived a fascinating, worthy, impressive life. From her fight for freedom to her struggle to lead and help others, reading Illuminations was a one-of-a-kind experience.

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