Chiara, sent to a convent without any feeling of a vocation, meets Silvano, seeking sanctuary in the nearby monastery. Their two houses are asked to provide pigments for the painting in the Basilica in nearby Assisi. They become as friendly as circumstances and propriety admit while both houses are troubled by a series of murders within the monastery.
For Silvano, the Franciscan monastery and his novice’s habit are simply a sanctuary from the forces of law which unjustly believe him guilty of murdering the husband of a young woman to whom he was attracted. The superiors of this house are aware of the situation and give him leeway while expecting him to follow the rule of the house. Chiara, on the other hand, has been more-or-less coerced into the novitiate as a younger sister of an impoverished family. Although by the end of the story she has left the sisterhood and is set to marry, her path to that end has been dignified and sympathetically understood by those responsible for the novices. While she is more forward than the other nuns, she is not a modern rebel struggling against a repressive establishment to assert her rights. Rather she is a dignified young woman of her time making the best of the circumstances in which she finds herself.
The characters of the monks (and equally the nuns, of whom we see less) seem to me realistic. They follow their calling, but each is still human, ready to indulge in uncharitable gossip and to be disturbed when the outside world has its impact on their cloistered lives. One of the monks at least has a past which is linked to a female character outside the religious life, but there is no suggestion of anything immoral, and both she and he respect the decisions each has taken subsequently. That this character ultimately leaves the religious life is perhaps the most regrettable of the devices used by the author (and seems a little forced), but it is not entirely out of line.
If I’ve focused somewhat on the religious aspects of this book it’s because it’s rare to see them get a positive gloss. In spite of the author’s epilogue description of marriage as “a social institution”, a means for men to control the lives and money of women, she gives it a fairer hearing than many others. Even those wives whose marriages are clearly less than desirable (both of whose husbands are murdered in the course of the story) appear to be faithful to their husbands and to do their best for them and for their children. Each is set to marry again, rather more to their own liking, even though one is engaged to an exiled murderer.
The whodunnit aspect of the book is fairly lightweight, not to say contrived, although I admit I hadn’t deduced the identity of the murderer. The peripheral characters-the painters in the basilica, the relatives of the main characters and a few others-are pleasantly drawn. The narrative style is simple and would not tax even a 12-year-old, although I am inclined to suggest a slightly older age group if only because of the need to understand concepts of religious vocation and marriage.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. His also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.