Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt.
Hildegard is only eight years old when her mother delivers her to an isolated monastery where she is bricked into two tiny chambers and an enclosed (but unroofed) garden with another, older girl for a life of imposed piety. Her only contact with the outside world is the screen between one of the two tiny rooms and the church, and the small revolving slot through which food and books can be delivered. Not particularly religious herself at such a young age, despite being the recipient from birth of fantastic visions, Hildegard struggles to survive in body and spirit, and the only thing that saves her is the friendship of a young acolyte not too much older than herself. Given a chance to escape when the rooms are unbricked in order to bring in two additional and very young girls, Hildegard finds herself unable to abandon the two young girls to their fate alone, and re-enters the rooms and is bricked in once more. Ultimately, Hildegard comes to largely accept her life in the monastery, though she remains unwilling to be imprisoned, and eventually she finds the strength to rebel and insist on freedom for herself and her fellow sisters in Christ. Eventually, she gives in to the visions, writes them down with the help of her acolyte friend, now a full priest, and founds her own religious community, along the way winning over the pope and various local powerful political figures to her cause and overcoming charges of witchcraft and several powerful and spiteful monks who resent a woman having power similar to their own.
Over all, this was a wonderful book. There were a few times, I must admit, where Hildegard's own depression threatened to overcome me as well, making it difficult to keep reading, but ultimately I was so drawn into the story and Hildegard's life that I couldn't put the book down, even when the story it told was downright depressing. Ultimately, this was an interesting and uplifting book, that I recommend highly. 4 out of 5.
I received an advanced review copy of this book. This did not affect this review in any way.