Friday, January 22, 2010

2-in-1: Sacred hearts by Sarah Dunant & The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

1. Sacred Hearts  by Sarah Dunant

Sacred Hearts: A NovelSacred Hearts is a novel set in the 16th century Italian city of Ferrara. A young girl enters the convent of Santa Caterina to spend her entire life as Suora Serafina. It is obvious that Suora Serafina, formerly known as Isbetta, is put in this convent against her will and she fights fiercely to correct this grievous injustice done to her. Serafina's howling, violent tantrums and screams force another sister, Suora Zuana to remedy the situation before all gets out of control. Zuana is a dispensary mistress (what one might call a doctor nowadays) who had been placed in the convent many years before also against her will. Zuana and Serafina form a special bond while Serafina sorely tries the patience of the abess, Madonna Chiara and all other nuns in the convent. As it is, the times are difficult for all convents across Italy as the pope with the help of bishops imposes more and more rigorous rules. For now, Santa Caterina is safe but how they deal with rebellious Serafina and her strong will to manipulate them all and escape the imprisonment will ultimately decide the fate of the convent. And the midst of all these dangerous changes, one young girl makes a strong impact of all the nuns in Santa Caterina, the impact none of them wanted or anticipated.

Sacred Hearts is my second Dunant's novel and it was also my attempt at liking Ms. Dunant's writing. I was sorely disappointed with The Birth of Venus mainly because I relied on all the glorious reviews and expected a masterpiece. As it turned out, I barely managed to finish the book. I took on a different approach as I prepared myself for Sacred Hearts. I avoided reading reviews, especially the 5 or 4 starred ones, and assumed that it would be not so great instead of a read of a lifetime. I am not sure whether it was this strategy of starting at the bottom or if Sacred Hearts was simply better written, but I was this time pleasantly surprised. The story was quite intriguing, it all took place in a convent full of women who probably were put there against their will and taught to accept their fates. The historical background and Ms. Dunant's dedication made me appreciate the whole novel that much more. The book is dedicated to all the women that had been imprisoned in convents and separated from the outside world for no crimes of theirs really. It is a rather slow reading but then again, I don't think it ever were supposed to be a plot and action driven novel. There is an intriguing plot in there but the most interesting part is what an impact one girl can make on all others around her.

I especially liked the character of Suora Zuana, this intelligent and skilled in the art of medicine woman whose only misfortune was that she was born in the time when women weren't granted the freedom to seek out their own professions or expand on their interest and passions. Yet she managed to make something out of her life, even if it's spent in a convent. I say if you appreciate more of a literary historical fiction when more patience needs to be involved, you'll definitely appreciate Sacred Hearts.

2. The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel: A NovelThe story begins in 1914 when a Chinese princess, Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father. This incident gives him an excuse to send the eight-year-old girl away to Japan. Eastern Jewel gets adopted by the Kawashima family and changes her own name to Yoshiko Kawashima. Japan becomes Yoshiko's true love and nothing gives her more happiness than the news that she became a Japanese citizen. However, as the time goes by, Yoshiko is made painfully aware that she never will be one of Kawashima's true daughters but rather a free human gift to sexually entertain Kawashima and his male guests. She doesn't despair though but turns into what one would call a sex addict nowadays. She also reinvents herself, partaking in the world of male population with fervor, takes fencing classes, smokes opium, dresses as a boy and above all else enjoys sex. And so the life of a future Japanese female spy begins. The novel is based on a real person and mostly real events. There really was a Chinese woman turned Japanese spy in the years between the two World Wars and during WWII.

I enjoy Asian fiction and was very excited to read about yet another figure in the history of China and Japan that I previously had had no idea about. The verdict: I could not have been disappointed any more. I thoughts I was going to read about this strong willed woman striving for independence in a society that treated females as a species below males in all aspects. Ms. Lindley wanted to show that despite what history's opinion of Yoshiko was, she was not a thoroughly bad person. I am not sure what measures were taken to make us readers see this princess spy in a forgiving light. All I saw was a corrupted woman who had sex with pretty much everyone that came her way. It was actually quite disgusting, especially Yoshiko's attitude to all the men that used and abused her. She thought all the time she was the one using her femininity for her advantage. Well, she wasn't. I was completely put off by this nymphomaniac person who destroyed everything and everyone in her way just to get what she wanted. She kept saying throughout the novel that her one true love was Japan but I just failed to see it as anything else other than an excuse for a more expensive form of prostitution.

I am no bigot, I am fine with sex scenes but what upset me the most is how Yoshiko's sex addiction is being justified as simply her means to live the life on her terms. I am just not sure that compromising her dignity was worth the false sense of independence, considering what she got in the end.