In Sarah Dunant’s latest historical novel, we follow the lives of two nuns. Suora Zuana is the dispensary mistress. Caring for her fellow sisters allows her some freedom perhaps not available to others. She can continue her medical studies encouraged by her late father and attend to her herb garden – both pursuits nourish her spirit. Suora Zuana’s peaceful life is put to the test when the novice Serafina enters the convent. Serafina is a noted songbird, but she has not entered the convent willingly. She rages. When she threatens to keep the whole convent awake all night, Suora Zuana must subdue her with poppy syrup. The combination causes Serafina to temporarily lose her beautiful singing voice. The abbess, Zuana’s dear friend, asks her to take Serafina under her wing. But will Serafina leave behind her forbidden love and enter the fold so easily? She threatens to turn the whole convent on its head.
I was instantly taken in by Zuana. I love her herb garden, tinctures, salves and other remedies. I could imagine myself in her dispensary with all the fragrances and concoctions. It helps, too, that honesty is important to Zuana. She is the level-head in a convent that is brimming with discord and is a great guide for Serafina. Serafina, herself, is a burst of passion and emotion tempered with intelligence and curiosity. It is no wonder she ended up in the convent in the first place. As usual, Dunant’s world is full of details and intensely fascinating. It makes you wonder what it would be like to be a woman living in the 16th century.