Poison

Kathryn Harrison, Author Random House (NY) $23 (319p) ISBN 978-0-679-43140-4
Perhaps Harrison's most signal achievement in this story of two doomed women is her reflection of their time and place: Spain in the 17th century, a sordid and barbarous era. Harrison (Exposure) is totally in command of her tragic narrative, which proceeds with the stately, mesmerizing pace of a pavane, stepping to one side to look behind, to the other to look ahead. Francesca Luarca, a humble silk farmer's daughter, is arrested for witchery. Her story parallels that of Queen Maria Luisa, the French Bourbon princess married to the impotent king of Spain, whose inability to produce an heir to the throne condemns her to death as surely as imprisonment in the Inquisition's prisons dooms Francesca. Francesca commits several sins: she begs a priest to teach her to read (a dangerous ambition for a woman); he also introduces her to carnal delights and impregnates her. Francesca is destroyed by passion, the queen-who is also called a witch by the jeering mob-by its complete absence. Hovering over everything is the ominous shadow of the Inquisition, fed by a greedy, corrupt church that plays on fears of devils and witches but forgives ``sins'' on the payment of hefty fines. Harrison weaves a marvelous tapestry of almost palpable details: people in Madrid wore enormous jeweled spectacles, ``an enhancement to dignity rather than eyesight''; ``the Spanish nobility's desire for loftiness was so intense and so literal that aristocratic women balanced on stilts.'' This is hardly an historical novel in its accepted sense, however, since Harrison pulls free of exact historical documentation. While richly imagined, the narrative is sometimes overwrought; being confined inside the heads of the poisoned, delirious queen and the peasant woman torn by the Inquisition's rack is a feverish experience. This claustrophobic darkness, the unremitting misery of the story, may deter some readers. For others, it will be an illuminating portrait of a woman's lot in an age poisoned by superstition and the church's tyranny. (May)
Reviewed on: 04/03/1995
Release date: 04/01/1995
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FORMATS
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-380-72741-4
Hardcover - 978-0-517-19495-9
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-299-04218-6
Open Ebook - 210 pages - 978-0-307-79978-4
Downloadable Audio - 978-1-4498-6984-7
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