Baroque thriller, set in 17th-century France, about the travails of a young nun who must keep silent as a charlatan priest tries to take over her convent.
When Mère Isabelle arrives in 1610 to take charge as the new abbess of the convent of Sainte-Marie-Mère on the remote island of Noirs Moustiers, Soeur Auguste knows right away that something is seriously wrong. For one thing, Mère Isabelle’s chaplain, Père Colombin, is not a priest at all but rather the mountebank actor Guy LeMerle. How can Soeur Auguste know this? For the same reason that she can’t reveal his identity: LeMerle is her old lover and the father of her daughter Fleur (who lives in the convent with her mother). Soeur Auguste (neé Juliette) has had a colorful past: Raised by Gypsies, she was educated by an Italian Jew and toured for some years with a troupe of wandering actors headed by LeMerle. Once a courtier with patrons among the aristocracy, LeMerle lost favor after one of his productions was denounced as blasphemous by an outraged bishop, and he was thereafter reduced to scouring the provinces for an audience. It was a difficult life, but there were compensations: the beautiful and talented Juliette fell in love with LeMerle and stood by him in all his difficulties. He repaid her by deserting her, pregnant, in the middle of the night. The nuns took in Juliette and her daughter, and the convent proved to be an agreeable home for both—until the arrival of the new abbess and LeMerle. Soon Fleur is taken away from Juliette and a new austerity regime begins. Juliette has the goods on LeMerle—but he has the power to return Fleur. So it’s a stalemate. But what on earth is he after? Let’s just say it has something to do with revenge, which as we all know is a dish best eaten cold.
Harris (Coastliners, 2002, etc.) does a creditable job re-creating the atmosphere of a very distant time and place, and infuses it with a sharp if somewhat obvious tale.