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The Falconer's Knot

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Lightweight whodunnit. Positive and coherent portrayal of the religious life, vocations and love among young people.

Author: Mary Hoffman

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published in: 2007

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: 14th C

Setting: Perugia, Italy

Genres:  DetectiveGrowing-UpHistoricalRomantic


Characters:

  • Silvano is a young man unfairly accused of murder. He seeks sanctuary in a monastery, joining the brothers' life without committing himself.
  • Chiara is the younger sister of an impoverished noble. She is sent to the convent with a small dowry, feeling that she has no real vocation.

Synopsis:

Chiara, sent to a convent without any feeling of a vocation, meets Silvano, seeking sanctuary in the nearby monastery when the two houses are asked to provide pigments for the painting in the Basilica in nearby Assisi. They become as friendly as circumstances and propiety admit while both houses are troubled by a series of murders within the monastery.

Notes:

(When I refer to “a religious” or “the religious life” below, I am using the sense of a consecrated life or person, such as a monk or a nun, as opposed simply to someone who is simply pious or devout).

As a Catholic, I tend to approach with caution or even trepidation novels, historical or otherwise, revolving around the religious life. Too often, the setting merely provides a colourful backdrop for some sordid goings on, with little respect paid to the lives and beliefs of the people involved. Attitudes by authors towards the decision to devote your life to God in answer to a vocation tend to range from the ambivalent to the downright cynical.

So it's a pleasant surprise to come across an author who is prepared to give such people the benefit of the doubt. I've no idea whether Mary Hoffman has a religious or spiritual sense or whether she's simply done her research well and is disposed to be generous. Either way, the result is a book which shows a realistic attitude towards the lives and feelings of the people in two mediaeval Religious houses, one of men, another of women, and of the people around them at the time. Several of her Stravaganza series set in an alternative renaissance Italy touch on the lives of monks with reasonable respect but a certain ambivalence is present there given the spirit-travelling premise of the stories. This story, however, is a straightforward historical romance coupled with a whodunnit.

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 he was attracted to. 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. She, and her Superiors in the convent, are aware that she has no sense of a vocation. But they take the long view that she will come to no harm there, and that a vocation may develop. Although by the end of the story she's 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 she finds herself in. In fact, she grows accustomed to the life of a nun, and especially to the way in which the colours which she helps create can be used for the glory of God. When an easy way out of the religious life is offered her, she is even a little reluctant to take it at first.

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 and they are 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's 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. The visitation of one of the the Order's superiors — something of a stickler — is cause for some cutting back of the good life by the monks but they are never portrayed as the worldly sybarites that you find in other works, and neither is the more ascetic visitor a demon. At one point, another non-religious character believes he has been given the job of killing a suspect monk by the visiting superior. But it's immediately made clear by the narrator that this was never the intention of the superior. (Although it's not entirely clear why he did in fact give this character his dead brother's dagger).

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. Additionally, and 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 a 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 wouldn't tax even a 12-year-old, although I'm inclined to suggest a slightly older age group if only because of the need to understand concepts of religious vocation and marriage.

Themes:

  • Marriage: love or money?
  • Religious life and vocations

When the novice came into her room, Mother Elena tried to assess how much Chiara had changed since the day she had thrown her curls to the birds. She still looked too boldly into other people's faces but now she remembered after the first glance, to cast her gaze down. And she moved more slowly and was less impetuous. The Abbess thought that, with time, Chiara would make a good sister in the Order of the Poor Clares. She was willing and obedient but Mother Elena know that she had still not felt the voice of God calling her to such a life. And she doubted that she ever would.

Wednesday 15th August 2007