Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2010

Sacred Hearts (2008), by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant is an English author who writes novels that explore ‘women’s issues’ in narratives that play around with time and space.    The first of her books that I read was Mapping the Edge, a dark psychological thriller about a woman who disappears while on a short break to Italy.  Its ambiguities and complex narrative lines set the writing apart from the usual ‘women’s fiction’ and I liked it very much.

Sacred Hearts is the third of a trilogy of historical novels set in the Italian Renaissance.  While still sufficiently well-written to intrigue, they’re more straightforward than Mapping the Edge and make me suspect that Dunant and/or her editors are these days aiming more for the popular fiction market than literary fiction.   Of the others, I thought The Birth of Venus a better book than In the Company of the Courtesan; Sacred Hearts has a few flat spots here and there as well, but was a good choice for an airport novel when jet lag and interrupted reading makes anything too challenging problematic.  (It was also a good choice for reading over a cocktail in the Writers’ Bar at Raffles Hotel in Singapore.)

Sacred Hearts traces the story of a young novice sent into a convent against her will.  Apparently there was nothing unusual about that: in this period inflation had hit the dowry system and many women in Italy were  unable to marry because their families could not afford the bride price.  So the convent has seen it all before; there is a period of ‘adjustment’ while the unwilling novice learns to submit and eventually the fellowship of the other women is supposed to compensate for the privations.  That’s not what happens with Serafina, and her shenanigans come at a time when church ‘reforms’ were clamping down on convents and inflicting even greater privation on the women imprisoned within.

So it’s quite an absorbing story, and even though the ending is somewhat predictable, I enjoyed it.  But it’s not going to break my heart to leave it behind in my London hotel when I leave, not at all like when I had to leave John Banville’s The Sea behind in Venice in 2005. I had to buy another one to replace that one when I got home!

Author: Sarah Dunant
Sacred Hearts
Publisher: Virago 2009
ISBN: 9781844083312
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99AUD.


  1. As a writer, I have to love your saying that it broke your heart to leave behind a book! I hope the one you review does justice to the spiritual angle.


  2. […] reviewed them on this blog: The Birth of Venus, (2003); In the Company of the Courtesan, 2006, and Sacred Hearts, (2009).  I enjoyed them as light fiction with a feminist slant on women’s choices during […]


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