by Julie Berry
Viking, 2016. 478 pages.
Julie Berry writes striking and memorable novels that pull you right into a time and culture quite different from our own. The Passion of Dolssa is about a young mystic in medieval Provensa who has visions of Jhesus, her beloved. But unfortunately for her, she has them during the Inquisition.
The book is presented as a series of documents from the time of the Inquisition discovered in later years. Dolssa’s testimony says things like this:
I was a young girl when my beloved first appeared to me. Just a girl of no consequence, the child of pious parents who were much older than most. . . .
My beloved was my great romance, and — impossible miracle! — I was his. He caught me up on wings of light, and showed me the realms of his creation, the glittering gemstones paving his heaven. He left my body weak and spent, my spirit gorged with honey.
There are no words for this. Like the flesh, like a prison cell, so, too, are words confining, narrow, chafing, stupid things, incapable of expressing one particle of what I felt, what I feel, when I see my beloved’s face, when he takes me in his arms.
There is only music. Only light.
Dolssa begins preaching to some friends of her Mama, and more and more people come.
In our Father’s house, I told the believers, there is never alarm, but only gladness, love, and peace.
Not long after that, the interrogations began.
Dolssa is sentenced to burn at the stake, along with her mother. But after her mother’s death, Dolssa’s beloved rescues her from the flames. She is able to flee.
While she’s hiding by the roadside, in fear and hunger and sickness, she is discovered by Botille, a tavernkeeper and matchmaker with two sisters who all have particular gifts. They take Dolssa in and hide her.
But the Inquisitors are relentless. When Dolssa starts healing the people of the village, how can they keep her presence secret?
Part of what’s interesting about this book is all the research the author did about the time and place. There are 32 pages of back matter after the story finishes. (You might want to check the Glossaries and Dramatis Personae before you finish. I didn’t realize they were there in back, because I try hard not to give myself spoilers. The back matter does not include spoilers and could be helpful. I did fine without it, but it might have made it a little easier to get the people with medieval names and the Occitan words straight.)
This is a wonderful book, with well-drawn characters. Botille and her sisters are not traditionally good folk, but they shine so much brighter than the official church represented by the Inquisitors. (The local priest is colorful, with many children in the village.) I learned about this time period in a way I will never forget.
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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.
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