Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a skilful author Mary Sharratt is, she draws you into a story effortlessly and keeps you there.
Illuminations tells a fictional account of the life of a real, very unique, historical character - Hildegard Von Bingen. Set in Germany in the 10th century, where choices for a youngest daughter were limited, yet little Hildegard has a joyous outlook on life, exploring the nearby forests with her beloved brother Rorich, developing a strong love of nature and the outdoors but at the age of just 7 she begins to have visions which her mother looks upon with suspicion and fear rather than the awe with which her nursemaid sees them.
All the more horrendous then is her Mothers decision to offer Hildegard as a hand maiden to a wealthy yet regarded as crazy, young woman Jutta von Sponheim, who is to take vows and become a Nun, believing this will be a great opportunity to learn new skills Hildegard is innocently unaware of what awaits her. Little realising the consequences of her Mothers betrayal Hildegard has no choice but to trust her Mother and accompanies Jutta to the crumbling monastery, where to her shock and absolute horror they are both about to be forcibly bricked in to a small cell together and left incarcerated there forever, only seeing the faces of monks and postulants who visit and joining in songs of worship through a small grill in the wall though which they are provided with sparse and meagre scraps of food to enable basic survival .
How can a child of just 8 years old contemplate a life like this? In Marys book we face this with Hildegard as she begins of necessity to grow close to the disturbed Jutta yet tries to retain her indomitable individuality and strength of character whilst dreaming of escape. She finds friendship with the young monk Volmar and a fragile friendship with Jutta which waxes and wanes as Juttas depression and mania increase. This is a story of survival against all odds, its a story of the overwhelming powers of friendship and it is the story of a young woman who is destined to become not only unusual for her time but a powerful influential character who fought for womens liberation back in these medieval times. It follows the long and fruitful life which Hildegard creates for herself.
I must confess I had a few reservations about reviewing this advance reading copy of this new book Illuminations, yes it ticks my favourite boxes of being a predominantly female book but not chick-lit, and by an author whose work I have previously loved, but when I recieved a request to review this work my reservations lay in the religious nature of the story I am not religious and dislike anything preachy. I needn't have worried too much as the book relies mainly on character building which the author is undoubtedly superb at and story telling of a joyful and delightful nature.
I must confess however there are a few passages describing the visions and ecstasy Hildegard experiences and the religious side of the story which left me a little confused and they are the main reason I have given this book 4 rather than 5 out of 5. But don't let this put you off reading it in any way its a lovely read.
I'd especially recommend this to anyone who has read Marys other books including The Vanishing Point, who enjoyed The Owl Killers with which this story has many parallels or who enjoyed Sacred Hearts.