Berry’s latest is a deep, authentic, and disturbing look at religious fervor.
Publishers say that historical fiction is a hard sell, and books with religion at their core are few and far between. Kudos, then, to Berry (All the Truth That’s in Me, 2013) for creating a sweeping saga that not only deeply entwines both but also dissects its characters’ humanity as it looks at the often troubling beliefs that underlay their actions.
The story-within-a-story begins in 1290. A friar is gathering papers and testimonies that will show how the inquisitions here on the border of France and Spain were God’s holy work. But one tale troubles him, so much so that he begins to stitch the strands together, and that is where the main story begins. Botille is a sassy teenager who makes money in her seaside village of Bajas by matchmaking. A disruptive childhood and a drunken father has bound Botille and her sisters closely together, but their lives are good: Plazensa runs the tavern, Botille makes her matches, and Sazia tells fortunes with uncanny accuracy.
To the north, in Tolosos, there is another girl, Dolssa. Aristocratic by birth and a mystic by the grace of God, she spends her days with her “beloved,” Jesus, who wraps her in his murmurs and consumes her with his love. That much love cannot be contained, and Dolssa begins telling others how much her beloved cherishes all people. The simplicity of her message is seen by the inquisitors as a threat to the church, a devil’s deception, and there is only one place it can end: in a public burning. Miraculously, Dolssa escapes the pyre. She wanders until she meets Botille, who saves and shelters her.
Yet despite the book’s gravity, Berry also manages to infuse
her story with laughter and light—welcome surprises.
This beautifully crafted plot would be enough on its own, but Berry does so much more. First, she establishes a convincing setting, in part by peppering the dialogue with Old Provençal language. Using many voices, some of which, including Botille and Dolssa, relate their own stories, she picks beneath words and actions to expose the motives of the heart, revealing how lofty ideas can turn into terrorizing actions, and how fear and self-preservation can make friends and neighbors turn on one another. Yet despite the book’s gravity, Berry also manages to infuse her story with laughter and light—welcome surprises.
The final surprise awaiting readers at the book’s conclusion adds yet another layer to the storytelling. Also at the book’s end, Berry has included a wealth of back matter, a glossary, a list of characters (possibly of more help if placed at the book’s beginning), and an author’s note explaining the roots of the religious discord, inquisitions, and wars, and touching on such female mystics as Hildegard of Bingen, who is referenced in the novel.
The beauty of historical fiction is that it brings to life long-ago times and places even as it shows how hopes, fears, and dreams remain constant across the ages. The strength of religious-centric novels is their revelation of the myriad ways people grapple with their faith and spirituality. The Passion of Dolssa’s rich brew will leave readers thinking about all of these things, even as it profoundly influences their own struggles and questions.
This review first appeared in the April 15, 2016, issue of Booklist.