The Greenest Branch is an engrossing historical novel set in the 1100’s about the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician.
At the age of 10, Hildegard enters the cloister of the Abbey of St. Disibod, following an ancient custom of families’ tithing their tenth child to the church. Enclosure within the cloister means that Hildegard will never see her family again, but she possesses a deep faith and a strong intellect and is thrilled that, unlike other girls of marriageable age, she will be able to continue her education. She has already displayed a talent for the medicinal arts, taught to her by the family nurse, and she longs to become a physician.
Soon she is permitted to train in the abbey’s infirmary, where she develops her knowledge of the curing powers of herbs. As she grows older and more skilled, her ambition flies against the powers of the Church, which regards women who heal as practicing witchcraft. She encounters a powerful nemesis in Prior Helenger, who is determined to thwart her, despite St. Disibod’s growing wealthy from her skills at treating the infirm. The danger to Hildegard increases when she starts to write about theology, which the Church expressly forbids women from doing. Her writings attract the attention of Papal authorities, involving her in the conflicts between the Papacy and the Rhineland’s political leaders.
I highly recommend The Greenest Branch to readers of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy reading about the medieval period. Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell, Tony Riches, and Hilary Mantel will love this book.
Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.
The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.
The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.
Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.
Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.
Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”
His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.
Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.
Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.
Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a Cambridge-like city in the martial state of Gilead. The book is a stunning achievement, a prescient tale written in 1985 about the subjugation of both women and opposition forces in a future, totalitarian America. In Gilead, women are treated as nothing more than wombs for the procreative benefit of the ruling class, while opposition forces are hung up on a citadel wall and left to rot until the next batch of executions.
After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you will be terrified of women who can smile and cry at the same time and long for bad-ass friends like Moira. Most of all, you will listen, with growing desperation, for the word “Mayday.”