Tuesday, 1 April 2014


When I recently read at a festival alongside the author Wendy Wallace, the chair commented on how odd it was that our books, although set in the same period and dealing with similar issues, were actually so different ~ in style, and in the way in which we approached the constraints of writing within that particular historical genre.

That set me to thinking about other books that might also have similar subjects, and yet which are entirely unique ~ which is why I've decided that, now and then, I'll write an occasional post on this theme, starting today with novels that have convents as their settings.

I have read and very much enjoyed every one of the books reviewed today, but it would be good to hear your thoughts. And if you have any suggestions yourself please do add them in the comments below.

The latest novel I read on this subject was one of two novellas written by Richard Skinner and published by Faber & Faber, both of which go under the single title of The Mirror

The Mirror is set in Venice, in 1511, and tells the story of Oliva, a young novice about to take the veil and become a bride of Christ. It opens with an earthquake which not only shakes the physical world but is also the point when a seed of doubt begins to take root in Oliva's heart, and that event coinciding with the arrival of Signor Vilo, the artist who paints her portrait. For these sessions he also brings a large mirror, painting his subject from its reflection. But what secrets does the mirror hold? What truths and what madness might there be found? 

This is a philosophical novel. The prose is poetic and beautiful, and almost creates a dream like mood. And yet it approaches its subject with a spare and clear reality, as if through the cold sharp lens of the mirror that glitters at the story's heart. 

I really enjoyed this novel. It lingered in my mind for days ~ and I was especially impressed with the author's allusions to colour; how colour ~ and colour is only light, reflected as if through a mirror's frame ~ might reflect the nature of our plights ~ our hopes and fears and destinies.

My second choice for this genre is Michelle Lovric's The Book of Human Skin. I adore Michelle Lovric's writing style which is magical, flamboyant and entirely assured. Her YA novels are also a delight - if only we'd had them when I was a child! However The Book of Human Skin is decidedly not a children's read. It is fiercely dark and subversive, though not without great humour. 

The central story is that of a Marcella, a young girl who is locked away in a convent when her brother, Minguillo (mesmerising and charismatic, but  horribly evil too) begins his narration with the words 'This is going to be a little uncomfortable'. Indeed it is! And Marcella's suffering at his hands is narrated from the extravagant viewpoint of no less than five individuals who (apart from creating a sense of awe that any writer could pull that off) knit together a complex scheme of events that lead to a thrilling conclusion.

I particularly enjoyed this novel because the quite sinister convent scenes are set in Santa Catalina, in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, a convent which I have also toured, and found it to be an inspiring place with a melancholy, haunting air. I always thought I would like to set a novel of my own in that place. But having read Michelle's Lovric's work I couldn't even begin to compete. Delightful, horrific and riotous. A truly entertaining read.

(And while we are on the subject, should you enjoy this novel, Michelle Lovric's The Remedy is  another based upon the convent theme.)

My third choice is Sacred Hearts, written by Sarah Dunant, and as an added bonus the novel is currently serialised on Radio 4 in the afternoons, with a dramatisation by Rachel Joyce. If you've missed it you can listen here - but be quick, the recording will only be live for a few more days from now.

I read this novel some years ago, but only when re-reading it did I come to truly appreciate the sensitive and poignant way in which its central characters are portrayed - and how every one of the convent's nuns is forced to come to terms with her fate when enclosed within its walls. Again, it has the central theme of a young woman imprisoned against her will. Indeed, so averse to convent life is the sixteen year old Serafina that her screams wake almost every nun on the night when she is first confined. She is right to be angry and afraid. The convent reflects the outside world - with ambition, hatred, desire and greed demonstrated to the full, where women are trapped in a battle of wits - whether in trying to escape or in the assertion of their roles. 

This is a novel about art, love and faith and the prices paid to achieve success. A finely wrought exploration of the complexities of the female heart - and the restrictions that those hearts must face during the Italian Renaissance,  an age of much enlightenment, but also of sexual inequality.

A satisfying, intelligent read, both passionate and political.

UPDATE TO POST ~ Since writing this, I've had various replies regarding other convent novels, or novels related to that theme. Here are a list of those suggestions, with apologies for not having noted the name of everyone who was so kind as to come up with this list of books.

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark - suggested by Sarah Watkins, @janesharp1671 on Twitter.

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny - from Twitter's @thebooktrailer

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - from Jill Nichols

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

Vivaldi's Virgin's by Michelle Lovric

Frost in May, and The Lost Traveller by Antonia White

Please see the comments below for yet more contributions.


  1. Great post. Nancy Bilyeau's excellent "The Crown" which is a historical thriller also has a convent setting (though after the dissolution of the monasteries the next book in the series must take place in a different venue). I think she does a wonderful job of showing what the dissolution did to the religious (so often only shown during this period as corrupt)

  2. Great post Essie! Coincidentally I was thinking just yesterday about all of the novels I've read that are set in convents! I read a lot of novels about Venice, and think this is why I have come across so many. I love Lovric & Dunant. Two others are 'Vivaldi's Virgins' by Barbara Quick & 'The Four Seasons' by Laurel Corona. Both of these are about Vivaldi & the Ospedale della Pietà - the convent/orphanage where he worked in Venice. I will have to read 'The Mirror' next!

  3. Thank you, Sophie. I don't know The Crown.

  4. Wonderful, Anna - thank you!