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October 2001

Write and Wrong

Excellent prose and book editors off their toes

Confessions of a Pagan Nun****
by Kate Horsley Shambhala, 2001
Though the title may sound comical, Confessions of a Pagan Nun is Santa Fe, New Mexico-based novelist Kate Horsley’s touching story of one remarkable life. Gwynneve, pagan druid turned nun, recounts the events of her life on parchment, neglecting her obligation to transcribe the works of Sts. Patrick and Augustine. The novel begins with the premise that an ancient codex has been found at the site of an Irish convent, and while one remembers this throughout the book, the telling of Gwynneve’s story is so honest and heartfelt that the fact that it is indeed a work of fiction is all but forgotten. Told from the perspective of Gwynneve as a middle-aged nun in her convent devoted to St. Brigit (“or the goddess Brigit, whatever it is her wish to be called”), she recounts her childhood, memories of her beloved mother and her adolescence and early adulthood as a student of the druid Giannon. Interruptions from the “present” focus the reader on the nun’s limitations—she must be careful in her wording, lest someone, upon finding her manuscript, accuse her of heresy—a crime punishable by death. However, as she relives her youth, Gwynneve becomes more empowered by her own pagan beliefs, and takes on quite a defiant tone toward the completion of her work.

While the book’s plot is rather basic (humans adapting to a changing world), the poetry of language created by Horsley is unique, and nothing short of exquisite. In expressing the simplest idea or describing quoditian surroundings, the author weaves a tapestry of words. In fact, you will be tempted to read and reread many passages, simply for their beauty. The author’s command of the English language is impressive indeed, relying not on conventional phrasing and hackneyed metaphors, but devising original ways of expressing her ideas, without being tedious with the desire to be original. The character of Gwynneve does not meet her end as a typical Christian martyr, as in the acclaimed historical novel Perpetual’s Passion; she is not brave, but accepts her fate nonetheless. Horsley has created in Gwynneve an everyday person, who does not believe her life to be extraordinary. Horsley’s linguistic artistry in telling this simple and touching story makes Confessions of a Pagan Nun a joy to read and a sorrow to finish.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague *
by Geraldine Brooks Penguin Viking Press, 2001
In historical fiction, one generally looks for authenticity: authenticity of language, of events, of cultural values and attitudes. However, in Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks has captured none of these things. Set in 1666 in rural England, Year of Wonders endeavors to chronicle the tragic story of a village ravaged by the Plague. Unfortunately, blatant ignorance of English spoken in the 17th century partly ruins the historical effect of the novel. Sentences such as “Thou speak untruly” (the verb of which should be conjugated “speakest”) can be found adjacent to sentences like “You’ll be glad to know.” Archaic terminology is either used ridiculously, in otherwise modern sentences, or altogether incorrectly. Did no one edit this book?

As for the style of the language Brooks employs, it is at best efficient and straightforward, and at worst uninspired and clumsy. The lack of description and failure to convince the reader of the setting in which the story takes place ruins whatever shred of historical effect remains. There is nothing whatsoever to indicate that this tale takes place in any era other than the modern one. If 1666 were such an annus mirabilis, and integral to the plot, then why was such little attention paid to historical detail?

The story itself lacks clarity, originality and inspiration. One struggles from chapter to chapter, waiting and hoping unavailingly, for character development and a more credible narrative voice. Emotional episodes are glossed over in a few words, leaving one to reread paragraphs in the hope of gleaning more information from the passage than was offered at first glance (but, of course, there isn’t any). While Year of Wonders is nowhere near the atrocity of a Danielle Steele novel, it is certainly more a chore than a pleasure to read.

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