by Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant writes meaty, intelligent and enjoyable historical novels. Set regularly in and around Renaissance Italy, they fall somewhere between stories by litterateurs such as Hilary Mantel and populists like Ken Follett. Sacred Hearts, her ninth work of fiction, is driven by two central characters. Serafina is a 16-year-old girl from the Italian city of Ferrara. Bold of character and possessed of a singing voice to tempt God down from his heaven, she refuses to marry the rich, influential suitor her parents arrange for her: she is in love with her handsome but penniless music tutor. This being 1570, such disobedience lands you in a nunnery (in Serafina's case, Santa Caterina). And in those days, a nunnery is not a pleasant place to be: 'Before the screaming starts, the night silence of the convent is alive with its own particular sounds.' At the centre of this hubbub is the other major character, Suora Zuana, the convent's dispensary mistress who is 'kind and fierce. Sweet and sour'. When Serafina crosses her path, refusing to sing or speak, Zuana sees a chance for dual salvation. Romantic, exciting and packed with convincing detail, Sacred Hearts climbs every mountain.