POISON by Kathryn Harrison


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 Deft, archly mesmerizing phrasemaking distinguish this latest by Harrison (Thicker Than Water, 1991; Exposure, 1993): When the plot stumbles, the poetry picks it up. Francisca Luarca, daughter of a scheming Castilian silkworm farmer in 17th-century Spain, narrates a tale that sees her life, in vaguely Dickensian fashion, as parallel to that of Mar°a Luisa, Queen to frustrated King Carlos II, who is desperate for a male heir. By the time Francisca and Mar°a's experiences begin to intersect, the Spanish Inquisition is hopping: Witches, heretics, Jews, and infidels are continually falling to the flame after torture in the Church's dungeons. Francisca eventually joins them, but first she relates a story that spans the 28 years before the auto-da-fÇ claims her broken soul. She witnesses the ruin of the family business after her father unwisely tampers with time-honored methods for raising silkworms. To survive, Francisca's mother becomes a royal wet-nurse, suckling the young Prince Carlos well into early adolescence. Spain is not a happy place by the time Mar°a Luisa is imported from Bourbon France in 1679, and it gets all the unhappier as Carlos's repeated attempts to impregnate his new queen fail. Oppressed by her new home--of which the novel paints a grim picture--Mar°a Luisa takes to faking pregnancies and hanging out with a dwarf, between doses of laudanum, before someone poisons her. Meanwhile, in one of the other strands of Harrison's elaborately plotted tale, a local priest introduces Francisca to rough sex, which she pursues with relish until the Inquisitors come knocking and toss the lovebirds into prison. Through mounting misery, however, Francisca hones her emotional perceptions and never loses sight of her connection with the dying, unloved queen. A minutely detailed novel that captures the depravity as well as the beauty of a frightening era. (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-679-43140-3
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1995


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