Sunday, July 28, 2013

"The Sisterhood" by Helen Bryan

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  • File Size: 681 KB
  • Print Length: 420 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1611099285
  • Publisher: Amazon Publishing (April 30, 2013)

This book is one of those thoroughly unexpected treats that should not be ignored! It was suggested, and provided to me, by the publicist who thought it might be a book that I would enjoy. I have to admit to being skeptical. How could someone that I don't know at all possibly know what I might like or not? What a shock! She nailed me and my interests perfectly, and I am so happy that she did!

This is a book that deserves a lot more attention that it has, perhaps, received. The author, Helen Bryan, is a barrister, and she is the author of another best selling book, "The War Brides". Perhaps it is her background in the law that facilitates her ability to blend time and space flawlessly and logically. The prose is so well done, and the flow of the book is perfectly paced. It's engrossing! 

It's a book that will stay with you. Once I finally opened it I could scarcely put it down. I looked forward to getting up in the morning to read a bit more, and then more at night. Yes, it really is that good.

I suppose one of the things that I really like about this book is that the story straddles two different times in history; the modern day and 16th century Spain during the throes of the Inquisition. Sometimes when authors write books like this, that span different time periods, there seems to be a slight catch or hitch as the book flows from from time period to time period. There is none of that little hesitance in this book, however. The chapters, and time periods, flow seamlessly from one to another and back again, and it all makes perfect sense as you read it too.

The story begins with the modern day and South American orphan girl who is adopted from a South American Convent. The only memories of her birth family are a curious medal and an ancient chronical (written in both Latin and vernacular Spanish). These artifacts are given to  the American Southern Baptist adoptive parent with the understanding that, upon her sixteenth birthday, the girl, Menina, would be presented with these mementos of her beginnings in life.

From the present you are sped to Spain in the 16th century. To a convent and to the lives of five orphans who were secreted to the sanctuary of a convent where all women and orphans were accepted regardless of past sins or religious upbringing. The names of these hapless orphan girls are Esperanza, who is 16 years old and whose parents are Muslims. Luz, a dwarf, who is also an heiress, but is not able to speak. Marisol, 14, incorrectly believed to be the misbegotten daughter of a Courtesan and the mad royal prince. Pia, a child of Scandinavian descent whose hair glows like the moon and whose beauty is difficult to ignore, but her mother is a courtesan. Last there is Sanchia, the daughter of Jews who barely escapes the burning that claimed the lives of her parents.

Eventually, as the Inquisition spreads, these children are sent on a journey to the new world in South America. They are sent away in order to protect them because the Inquisitor's are expected at the convent gates at any time, and the sisters do not want their various histories to be discovered lest the be taken by the Inquisitor's and tortured. They are sent with both the chronicle and the medal in the hopes that they will found a new convent dedicated to the healing arts and acceptance of all women no matter their religious beliefs or color. It is also hoped that they may find men to marry and will be able to carry on the mission of the convent.

Swallows, which are so plentiful in Spain, are the symbol that is used to mark both the old convent and the new; they also mark the cover of the chronicle and the medal. The journey takes so many unexpected turns. No one at the main convent knows what became of the orphans nor do the orphans know what happened when the Inquisition came knocking.

Back in the present time, after braking off her engagement to a local political maven's son, Menina ,  decides to travels to Spain; both to heal her broken heart as well as to do research for a thesis on the artist Tristan Mendoza. Menina now suspects that her ex-finacee wanted to marry her only for the Hispanic voters that she might bring to the political relationship. She wants to escape also from the forced, premarital rape that left her bereft of her future and split her exceedingly 'safe' life apart at the seams. 

After an unexpected, severe, storm leaves Menina stranded in a mountainous village just after her arrival in Spain, does her life begin to find renewed meaning, albeit not willingly at first. Due to the storm's effects the phones in the village are not functioning and preclude her trying to contact her parents or the tour director who she was supposed to meet up with in Madrid. The local police officer at first thinks that Menina is a prostitute that has come to the town to join in a yearly celebration. Menina is taken to the mountainous convent where she will find safety and a place to stay until needed repairs are made to the telephone system and allow Menina to leave the village.

At this point the story, along with Menina, blossom with kismet, and the telling of the tale is beautifully done! The separation between past and present becomes a thin veil as Menina uncovers some long lost paintings by the artist, Tristan Mendoza, who she is studying and whose only known works were thought to be found in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

This is how these two diverse stories begin, but the telling is what is entrancing and is what will hold your attention from the first page to the last. I was sorry to have this book end, and I don't too often feel that way no matter how good a book may be.

Some of the publication that was sent to me with the book was particularly interesting and contained some comments by the author about her work.

One of the questions concerned what lasting impression she hoped that the book would leave readers with. Part of her reply included ".. the book is set in two periods of tension, hostility and mistrust between Jews, Christians and Muslims, four hundred years apart but with many parallels..." This is a really relevant comment, but you will simply have to read this gem of a book for yourself to understand what the parallels are! 

Read this book! I cannot help but think that you will not regret it. The book should have wide appeal for historical history fans as well as for readers of wonderfully written general fiction.


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