Sunday, July 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry was very favorably reviewed on a blog I follow and, because it is set in my favorite historical place and time, I squeezed it onto my to-be-read list. What a rewarding read!

Dolssa is a young Christian mystic, a noblewoman who has found an intimate relationship with Jesus during a time when any sort of religious aberration is suspect. She living in Provence, Provensa, in the mid-thirteenth century, just after the Albigensian Crusades. Inquisitors are bent on rooting out any last remnants of "heresy." Although they are specifically hunting Goodmen and Goodwomen (Cathars), they will not let a girl who claims to speak directly with Christ slip from their hands.

Dolssa is sentenced to be burned on the pyre. However, she makes a miraculous escape and flees. Life on the run is difficult for a naive gentlewoman. She’s found near dead, hidden next to a river, by a peasant woman named Botille.

Botille is the true heroine of the story. She and her two sisters are relative newcomers to a small town, Bajas, where they renovated an old tavern and made a place for themselves. With their hard work and unique talents, they have become favorites there, but are not so well-loved that they can bring a heretic, one being pursued by Inquisitors, boldly into Bajas. Anyone who shelters or aids a heretic is subject to the same punishment as the supposedly guilty one: execution, sometimes preceded by torture.

At first, the sisters try to hide Dolssa, but this becomes impossible as she starts healing the sick of the town. Word of a holy woman spreads.

Botille has many friends in Bajas, but finds them pulling away as the danger increases. It’s only a matter of time before the Inquisitors track Dolssa down. Botille’s one steady support (in addition to her sisters) is a man she finds rude and churlish. Still, without his support she’d be in even worse straits. When the Inquisitors do come, Botille (and her sisters, and Dolssa, and the rude young man) risk losing all.

The novel is difficult to put down. Written in a style that pulls you into medieval Provence, it’s pensive without being slow. The voices of the characters are distinctive and convincing, and the sympathetic heroines have you rooting for an outcome that circumstances are unlikely to allow. The setting is vividly described.

This is my favorite kind of historical fiction. A historical note, glossary, and reading lists at the end of the novel demonstrate the thoroughness of the research behind the story, and the author leaves to the reader the choice of how much of the tale is to be believed.