Stacie's Reviews > Poison

Poison by Kathryn Harrison
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Nov 06, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, female-authors

** spoiler alert ** This shocking and descriptive tale of the Spanish Inquisition is like that old cliché about a car wreck. You can’t help but look. The violence is so dramatic it will make a reader’s stomach turn. But you can’t put it down. Each word is eaten up and savored due to the beautiful way Kathryn Harrison displays atrocities, heartache and passion.

The only freedom in this novel is found in Harrison’s descriptions. This story is about literal and figurative jails. Francisca de Luarca, the daughter of a failed silk farmer, narrates this tale from her cell where she has been kept after being arrested by the “White Hoods” of the Inquisition. Marie Louise, the beautiful French princess, is married to a sickly, confused and impotent King Carlos II. Francisca is punished for having an affair with a priest; Marie Louise is punished for not becoming pregnant with the king’s heir.

Harrison’s focus on sin – whether from the Inquisitors’ perspectives or those of the characters – makes for interesting reading. She juxtaposes the harsh judgment of the religious police with the actual sins of the townspeople. In one scene, Francisca’s lover the priest reveals to her the confessions of her neighbors. The confessions are reduced to pillow gossip. Francisca learns of the confessions of her father and sister. But they are simple confessions. They are not of witchcraft and lust as the Inquisitors would believe. They are of honest human feelings: hatred, distrust, confusion, disbelief.

Violence is heavy throughout this novel. The punishments of those condemned – the torture of Francisca by the hooded men – are at times hard to read. But other times Harrison poetically displays these atrocities in a way that the reader almost forgets how disgusting they are. In a milder example, Queen Maria Louisa (as her name is changed) is being bled due to an infection brought on by poison. Harrison writes:

Nearing death, and brimming with longing for those she has loved and lost, an unexpected, almost embarrassing smell of revelation flows from Maria’s opened vein. Freed from the constraints of flesh, memories and desires, carried in her blood crowd about the room. Her heart empties itself silently, but Dr. Severo cringes as if at a sudden clamor, and his boy shrinks back against the draperies.

This is just one example of how Harrison appeals to all the senses. Not only is this a visual scene with the blood flowing down the queens foot, but the author uses “smell” in an unusual way to describe her memories and her disappointment. The prose is beautiful and continues this way through the entire novel.

The queen’s story is especially intriguing because it is historically based. The reader constantly questions if the events really happen. Her feelings of longing for her home country and the freedoms of childhood are tangible and realistic. King Carlos is humorous at times, though in the darkest way. He clings to his saints the way he did the breasts of his wet nurses until the age of twelve. He has never figured out the proper way to have intercourse, and his doctors refuse to correct him for fear of being reprimanded. Instead the queen is blamed, while the king cannot stop ejaculating on her thighs instead of the proper orifice. But the humor ends when Harrison describes the procedures Maria Louisa endured because of the king’s ignorant impotence.

I found myself more less involved in Francisca's story than the queen's. Her childish nature and rebelliousness was a little too much, almost forced. Her passion for the priest and their love affair seemed forced as well, almost as if they were included by the writer to balance the lack of passion in the royal marriage. But it was overdone. And it was hard to sympathize with Francisca until the very end of the book (besides the death of her mother), when she describes bearing the priest's child and then losing it.

Harrison also touches on the issue of faithlessness, and the natural instinct of humans to question their faith. At the end of the novel, Francisca says: “What do I believe? In nothing, and everything. When Mateo (her son) died, whatever faith I had in life’s goodness evaporated. Like the faint moisture of the last breath that clouds the mirror, when my child died that thin mist of my faith evaporated.

“Still, I pray. We all do. We cannot help ourselves.”

How can those who’ve led such tortured lives still have faith? It is an amazing thing, and something we’ve witnessed throughout history. People need something to believe in. At times it is their saving grace; other times it is the key to their demise. Either way, it is central to all of time: past, present and future.
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