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[279] Holy Fools – Joanne Harris

” The abbey is perhaps the only refuge where the past may be left behind. But the past is a sly sickness. It may be carried on a breath of wind; in the sound of a flute; on the feet of a dancer. ” [1, 5]
” I was young; intoxicated, to be sure, by my new life; but Isabelle’s daughter was not to be blinded by frills and fripperies. No, it was love that blinded me, and when our ship of dreams struck aground, it was love that kept me at his side. ” [5, 27]

Britanny, 1610. Juliette has once been an actress and rope dancer. Betrayed by a troupe leader for whom she has mistakenly planted the seed of affection, she is forced to seek refuge among the sisters of the abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer. Renivented as Soeur Auguste, Juliette told the sisters that she was a widow when she arrived five years ago.

We share little except a need for privacy, a mistrust of men, an instinctive solidarity, which outweighed differences of upbringing and belief. Each one of us fleeing something we could not quite see. As I said, we all have our secrets. [2, 12]

Juliette’s comfortable life comes to an end when the kindly abbess dies. The successor, a girl from a corrupted religious family, whose shyness quickly reveals to be high-bred contempt, is so strict that the abbey’s way of life is overturned. But she is a fool to be manipulated by an impostor. Abetted on her reforms is a confessor, Pere Colombin, whose disguise and style Juliette, to her dread and shock, recognizes right away. It’s LeMerle the troupe leader—what’s his game in the abbey, if there is no monetary in it?

No as it was demonic influence, she was sure of it. Mere Isabelle was sure of it, and to such an extent that the new abbess had ordered Pere Colombin to bless the well and the entire abbey grounds if necessary. [20, 151]

Hence is an arm-race against time, between LeMerle and Juliette, who tries to outsmart one another, as LeMerle has succeeded in holding the sisters in the palm of his hand. He takes advantage of their shallow conviction in their faith; he creates in the abbey an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and demonic possession. As the abbey thrives on gossips and whispered scandal, Juliette has to think what the impostor’s next move will be—even though his grand motive is unknown. Holy Fools, a title that mocks religion’s thinking only in absolutes, is a story of intrigues and unimagined plottings. Harris is able to reveal and conceal, feeding just the necessary information to set up a belated climax.

355 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Heroine

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Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Good question but difficult to answer, for I worship the style and language more than characters. Off the top of my head at this moment would be Vianne Rocher from Chocolat by Joanne Harris. While the priest pits himself against Vianne, who opens a chocolate shop in town, and contrives to thwart the festival planned for Easter Sunday, she has fulfilled a grandmother’s wish, encouraged an unhappy woman to start living for herself, consoled a man whose dog passed away, and welcomed a group of gypsies whom the town despise. The novel just pulls my heart-string with its brimming humanity and warmth.

On the same note but with more edge is Aliena from The Pillars of Earth by Ken Follett. The doomed heiress has proven to be one of the most noblest and admirable characters in literature. Living the life of an incessant revenge’s victim, she stood her ground but not without qualms. William whom she rejected to marry, had ruined her father, raped her, taken her castle, burned her wool trade and exiled her brother, but every time the villain thought he had crushed her she came back again, rising from defeat to new heights of power, wealth, and strength. She’s a true fighter.

Last but certainly not the least, inspired by my inner biased voice, is Anna from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. She’s probably the one female character in any literature I’ve read that most resembles my scope of love. Don’t get me wrong, I do not have a tinge of an intention to kill myself, nor plan to exile myself from the society. I share the governing principle of her life–love is stronger than anything, even duty. She is powerfully committed to this principle. She rejects Karenin’s request that she stay with him simply to maintain outward appearances of an intact marriage and family. Anna’s greatest worry in the later stages of her relationship with Vronsky is that he no longer loves her but remains with her out of duty only. Her exile from civilized society in the later part of the novel is a symbolic rejection of all the social conventions we normally accept dutifully. She insists on following her heart alone.