Still on my medieval history binge, this book, by Priscilla Royal was recommended to me by a friend. The short novel set in 1270, tells the story of Sister Eleanor, the newly appointed prioress of a monastery that houses both monks and nuns in one of the only orders that allowed such co-mingling during the Middle Ages.
Blessed with a quick mind and youth, the new prioress encounters not just resistance form the older monks and nuns who can’t reconcile her age and attractiveness with her abilities and who resent the of imposition of someone favoured by the king upon them, she also has a dead body to deal with.
Having only arrived a few days before, Sister Eleanor is tasked with bringing to justice the murderer of a popular and elderly monk, a dear friend of the former prioress and a man above suspicion or, so everyone believed until he’s found not only with his throat cut, but with his genitals severed.
The first of many bodies, Sister Eleanor finds herself sorely tested and not even the arrival of a new, young monk, Brother Thomas, promises aid. However, Thomas is more than he appears and in him, Sister Eleanor has both a friend and an ally.
What I really liked about this book, apart from its portrayal of cloistered life in the Middle Ages, was the frank and unabashed way it deals with sexuality among a brother and sisterhood. Sexuality and friendship. Accepting that those of the same se also found love and could (and could not) reconcile it with their teachings, the novel explores what it might have been like and levels of tolerance and intolerance.
As a crime book, however, it wasn’t as strong. While the murders were interesting and the red herrings well cast, when the murderer finally confesses everything holding a knife over a prospective victim, I felt a bit like I was reading Crime Writers 101. I thought this was what you don’t do – have explanations delivered neatly by the villain at the nth moment. This mechanism has been spoofed so often in film, books and TV, for a moment, I thought it was a joke here as well. Alas, it wasn’t. It cast the remainder of the book in a different light and I found myself feeling cross and disappointed.
However, as a novel that explores the human heart, needs and desires and the way these intersect with faith, I found it quite rewarding.