Monday, June 05, 2006

Book review: The Priest’s Madonna

“Holy blood, holy grail”, a book that’s stirred plenty of controversy as well as admiration, and a whole slew of theories, mentioned Berenger Sauniere, a Catholic priest who may have discovered secret documents that suggested that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and their descendants went on to form the Merovingian dynasty. Perhaps, perhaps not. But this story provides Amy Hassinger plenty of material for her book, The Priest’s Madonna.

But this is not another conspiracy theory about the Catholic Church. The Da Vinci code did a sufficiently tacky job of that. This book turned out to be a rather enjoyable “romantic-thriller” (is that even a real genre, or did I make it up?).

It is set in late 19th century France, in a little southern village, Rennes-le-Chateau. The tale is that of Marie Denarnaud, a young girl in her teens when the story starts. A new priest, Berenger, moves in to the village, to take over the parish, and stays with the Denarnauds. He soon fascinates the village, and earns its devotion, with his passionate sermons. Marie is drawn towards him, as is Berenger towards her. Soon, they are deeply in love.

The story itself is narrated by Marie, and constantly flashes to the past, weaving in Mary of Magdalene’s life and association with Jesus. We’re soon drawn in to the lore of the region of Rennes-le-Chateau, through Marie. The region is full of legends and myths. Mary Magdalene herself was rumored to have lived in Gaul, after Jesus was crucified. Local legend believed that Mary Magdalene died in the region. The region was also home to the Cathars, who were suppressed by the Catholic Church, and rumors of hidden catacombs and treasure filled the hills. Marie befriends the mysterious Madame Simone Laporte, wife of the mayor of the village, who lives in the local chateau. There, Marie reads the many books Madame Laporte had in her library, while Laporte speaks to her of local legend, history, and lore. Of the Cathars, of Visigoths, and of the Merovingian kings of the region, and (perhaps) of herself. Marie begins to question her own rigid ideas of religion. Meanwhile, Berenger and Marie draw closer to each other, yet resisting each other, avoiding the “corruption of sin”.

We’re drawn in to little secrets. A rich nobleman grants Berenger wealth to restore the church, in return Berenger has to reveal any thing out of the ordinary he finds. He discovers some secrets, that he tries to hide from Marie, and the book really does take off from here, and there are plenty of hints of mystery, intrigue, and romance thrown in, and yes, questions about the bloodline of Christ.

Through this book, and through Marie, Madame Laporte and Berenger, Hassinger questions the rigidity of faith. Does becoming more rigid in your faith take you farther away from it? Does questioning and accepting history make your faith stronger? Through Edouard, Marie’s father, and a staunch supporter of a secular republic, questions of separation of church and state are raised. Thankfully though, Hassinger keeps these questions to the characters, and hence it flows well with the book. Rather, it all adds to the characters, and their own internal conflicts and doubts about doctrine and belief.

There are moments in the book though where I felt Hassinger gets carried away by her own (wonderful) writing skills, and some sections appear to just be showcasing her skills in sentences that delve in to excessive description.

“We passed through the kitchen-which was not so very different from our own, only bigger and better stocked-and then through the dining room, which boasted a long mahogany table, empty except for a three-pronged candelabra that held the dribbling stumps of unlit tapers, four dining chairs, and a plain mahogany sideboard”

Wonderful, certainly, but perhaps slightly distracting. A Marquez effect? Some parts of the novel (especially in the first half) drag as a result.

The book’s strengths are definitely in the characterization of Marie, and the growing relationship between Berenger and Marie. The growth of their feelings amidst tensions and their own questions are rather beautifully portrayed. As are all the other characters in the book, and it’s a pleasure to read about Marie, Laporte, Berenger, Marie’s father Edouard, her mother, and sister Michelle. As are the hints of local lore, history and myth. But the novel doesn’t delve in to the discovery they make, as much as a “thriller” would. There are no red herrings, or surprising twists in this tale. You can see what’s coming, and it comes.

Yet, through Berenger and Marie’s doubts and questions, the book ends up being a rather charming read about faith, belief and love. As a romantic novel, with touches of spirituality, it’s excellent, and here Hassinger’s skills as a writer shine. The little flashbacks, to Nazareth and Jerusalem, and Mary of Magdalene, are thoroughly delightful. There are sections in this book that are to be thoroughly relished. But perhaps it could have been absolutely riveting if we were thrust in to the legends, rumors, discovery, catacombs and treasures more, and some of the meandering of the first half of the novel had been sacrificed.

A very enjoyable read, none the less.

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