Serafina enters the Ferrara convent of Santa Caterina as its prisoner, screaming like a madwoman. At sixteen she's one of two nobleman's daughters, but there is only dowry enough for one suitable marriage.
Like Dunant's other two historical Italian novels, this is set in the Renaissance - or the tail-end of it - but where her first two heroines were bold rebels, the story is seen more through the eyes of a middle-aged nun who has embraced the cloistered life.It's a time of political and religious ferment Serafina's dowry to the convent makes her especially desirable, but she is also possessed of a heavenly voice which will add to the lustre of their famous choir. In time, they believe, Serafina will, like the rest, accept that convent life is preferable to the brutality of the world outside, and turn to the ideal bridegroom, Christ. What they do not know, initially, is that she is already passionately in love.
Stroppy and silent, Serafina seems reminiscent of many modern teenage girls, and many readers will smile at some of the scenes Dunant depicts. Nevertheless, she forms a relationship with the humane, scholarly herbalist Suora Zuana whose pupil she becomes. Zuana was the daughter of a doctor, educated and impoverished so that the convent offered her both refuge and intellectual freedom to experiment. A tension between youth and age, science and superstition, love and chastity is set up. The convent's all-female world is deformed both physically, in many cases, but also morally and intellectually, with religious mania threatening to break out over a mysterious old nun who showed the stigmata. Yet it also contains genuine goodness and compassion. Threatened from without, the worldly Abbess also has an enemy within in Suora Umiliana, a fanatic who believes that the ancient Suora Magdalena's stigmata are a sign of insufficient piety.
Inevitably, when describing a life of privation and routine, there are some less gripping passages. We learn a good deal more about Zuana, her opinions of sex and her memories of her dead father, than the fiery young teenager who is central to the plot. There are stomach-churning descriptions of foul breath, starvation and purefaction. Serafina's attempts to contact her lover outside the impassably sheer convent walls seem unrewarded until, 150 pages in, comes the moment that makes your hair stand on end. Gathered together to sing invisibly for the city behind a grille, the choir's "best songbird" opens her mouth - only to be effortlessly outclassed by Serafina's voice, "ripe with youth and sharp as a golden spear," soaring unexpectedly above it. Why has she broken her silence?She knows that her lover is in the congregation; but the convent believes their novice has opened her heart to Christ.
From then on, we're never in doubt that Serafina is going to do all she can to escape. It's a battle of wits, feminine duplicity and politics of a kind that readers adore. The comical details delight: the posh, indoor nuns whose relations smuggle in silver trays to act as mirrors and aid in the removal of facial hair, or the breath-freshener and cure for piles concocted and sold to bishops. Yet what you remember most is the painful maternal passion nuns pour into small dogs - and the intellectual ability directed into musical composition and a culture which, in 1570, is doomed to be utterly repressed by the Council of Trent. An excellent read!