Thursday, May 17, 2007

Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley

I'm not usually into historical novels but I was naturally drawn to the theme of this book. The story takes place in Celtic Ireland as its tuaths (tribes, clans) are converted to the new faith: Christiany. The old ways being replaced by new ones in order to improve people's lives. We often forget, in our modern comfort, how harsh were the lives of the ones who walked this Earth before us. We forget that they were at the mercy of famines, diseases, floods, harsh winters...etc. These hard living conditions are intertwined with the story told in this novel.
The narrator, Gwynneve, who was brought up in the old ways, has become a nun in a monastery dedicated to Saint Brigit. She is one of few literate women and her task is to transcribe scriptures from St Patrick and St Augustine in the loneliness of her cold and damp clochan (a beehive-shaped cell made of stone). Even though she embraced Christianity, she admits that there were some truths in her old pagan beliefs and questions some things of her new faith that she's seen, read and heard in the monastery (page 22 "I have read and transcribed our bishops' rules that say women must not try to be attractive to men but must scorn the qualities in themselves that cause men to fall from grace. It has puzzled me that men, who claim more and more authority over women, show such fear of those whom they call weak. Perhaps they are hoping that women will come to believe that they need to be protected and dominated, but I cannot imagine any woman being so foolish.").
She misses her freedom as a woman, the teachings of her wise mother who knew about the healing herbs (page 5 "She worshipped not God but what He created, and she knew plants well but not as a scholar. The tonsured men were not yet here to give the plants their Latin names: fraechoga (woodberries), crem (wild garlic) and birer (watercress). When there was sickness in the tuath, many were glad to see my mother's slender feet walk the mud paths between huts with her bundles of herbs."), the knowledge and wisdom of her druid teacher...
I am only half way through the book and can hardly put it down. Some people might think that the style is heavy but it is in the Celtic Nature to be descriptive and poetic at the same time. I can only recommend this novel warmly and will complete this review once I finish the book.

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