BookBrowse readers give Mary Sharratt's Illuminations high marks with 14 out of 16 readers rating it at least 4 stars out of 5. Here's why:
The nuanced portrait of Hildegard von Bingen resonated with many:
Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is a fascinating fictional account of the life of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century mystic, writer, composer, and Benedictine abbess. The novel contains a wealth of historical detail, but its true strength lies in the complex characterization of Hildegard, who is portrayed as a deeply religious but flawed individual who overcame much in her life to become the only sanctioned female theologian of her time (Terri O). By the end of the book, I felt that the author had given me an inside glimpse into the heart and soul of a brilliant, multi-talented woman who centuries later continues to inspire us. I highly recommend this book to all readers who want to know her, not just know about her (Helen S). Ms. Sharratt has done a wonderful job weaving historical fact; relationships (despite the difficult circumstances); and insight into the psychology of the characters (Jill S). I was worried it would be stuffy and overly religious, but it wasn't at all. It was fascinating! (Martha L).
The book sheds light on women's roles in medieval society:
As grim as Hildegard's life appears, her story is truly engrossing, inspiring wonder and courage that Hildegard was able to overcome so much adversity and contribute such music, knowledge and a sense of power which inspired the young women of her time. Deftly written, this novel places the reader fully into Hildegard's life and time with fully rounded characters, the historical backdrop of the Crusades and the ongoing struggle of women to overcome the social roles expected of them (Therese X). She learned how to thrive in a myopic cell existence and put her mind to learning what beauty the world held. In her later years she became a powerful abbess and she learned how to exist in a man's world (Mary G).
A couple of readers questioned the book's historical accuracy:
Little is known of the events in the period of her 30-year confinement, and the treatment of this section seemed too fictionalized, with sexual innuendos added just to make the book more readable (Donna W). An imagined memoir, the author deviates a great deal from recorded history. I enjoy novels of real life people because it helps to bring the person into my concrete world but Sharratt's imagination is too wild, making Hildegard appear too pious and yet too foolish. She makes Hildegard what she wants her to be, not what she was. (Nancy H).
But most loved learning about an unknown facet of history:
This book was fascinating. I knew very little about the life of an anchorite, I had read a little about Julian of Norwich but I learned so much more from this book. It is not a 'religious' book so much as it is an examination of human fortitude and the courage to fight for your convictions (Linda S). This beautifully written book about an extraordinary woman was so informative about a time of such corruption and turmoil in the Catholic church. I was happy to be introduced to her (Elinor S). The story of Hildegard von Bingen's life was fascinating and enlightening. Before reading Illuminations I had only known about her from facts gleaned from the liner notes on CDs of her music. But as I read this historical novel, I could see her talents developing and imagine what life would have been like for her as an anchorite coping with difficult people and trying situations (Helen S).
Who will like this book:
I would recommend this book to any reader who enjoys excellent historical fiction; it would especially appeal to those with an interest in mysticism, early feminism, or early Church music. I highly recommend listening to some of Hildegard's musical compositions while reading the book (a list of recordings can be found in the afterword at the end of the novel (Terri O). This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in Women's Studies (Mary G).
This review was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the October 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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