Sharon Bolton's Reviews > Holy Fools

Holy Fools by Joanne Harris
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‘Time’s black rosary counts the interminable seconds.’

In 17th Century France, Soeur Auguste lives a gentle, generous life in the remote island abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, together with her daughter, Fleur. She is loved and valued by her sisters in faith, as much for her skills with medicinal plants as for her sweet and kindly nature. But Soeur Auguste is hiding a secret. She is not the impoverished widow of her ‘cover story,’ but Juliette, a one-time gypsy and circus performer, forced by the betrayal of a man she loved to seek refuge in holy orders.

For the first five years of Fleur’s life, all goes well, and if Juliette feels at all restless and confined in her new life, the joy she has in her daughter and her friendship with the Abbess and some of the other nuns more than make up for it.
But then the old Abbess dies, and her successor is the eleven-year-old daughter of a corrupt and noble family, fanatically bent on reform. Worse still, the new Abbess has brought as her confessor and guiding priest an imposter with an evil agenda of his own. Pere Colombin is none other than Guy LeMerle (the Blackbird) the man who betrayed Juliette five years earlier. To survive in the new order and protect those she cares about, Juliette has no choice but to fight LeMerle in an increasingly dangerous battle of wits that, ultimately, only one of them can survive.

The book starts sweetly, if a little slowly, as we alternate between Juliette’s life in the abbey and her recollections of an earlier time on the road. It was no charmed existence: she was orphaned, separated from her adopted family, driven to begging and prostitution to survive, used selfishly by the man she loved and finally abandoned to an almost certain death. And yet, Harris captures the rich, heady essence of 17th century gypsy life in the way that, to my mind, Stef Penney completely failed to do for its 20th century equivalent in The Invisible Ones. Harris paints a wonderful, colourful picture; not a pretty one, by any means, but one completely compelling.

What might be disappointing for Harris fans is that the character of Juliette can seem rather too similar to that of Vianne Rocher (Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure) and to some extent that of Framboise (Five Quarters of The Orange. There was a sense, in the Juliette-narrated chapters, of going over old ground but the book comes to life gloriously with the entrance of Guy LeMerle, a fascinatingly immoral creation, who values others only in that they can be of use to him or amuse him and who remains irrepressible and unrepentant till the end.

The follies of organized religion are themes that Harris refers to frequently in her work, but in no other book is the danger of denying natural human impulses more thoroughly explored than in this. The convent seethes with the stench of repressed sexuality and resonates with the frustrations of lives left unsatisfied. The abbey is like dry kindling in the hot sun. One spark and everything is set to erupt.

Harris shows the freefall into disorder perfectly. The simple country nuns soon become confused, attention seeking, spiteful and, ultimately, hysterical under the twin influences of LeMerle’s mischief and the Abbess’s misplaced zeal. We can only watch with dismay.

The Holy Fools is probably not the best of Harris’s books, but given that her “worst” would still be streets ahead of the best of most other writers, it’s well worth a read.

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Reading Progress

August 15, 2012 – Started Reading
August 15, 2012 – Shelved
August 15, 2012 – Finished Reading

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