cover image Illuminations


Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-547-56784-6

Sharratt (Daughters of the Witching Hill) offers up an imaginative retelling of the fascinating life of the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen. As the 10th child, Hildegard is given to the church as a tithe at age eight, whereupon she becomes a handmaiden to the devout and troubled Jutta von Sponheim. Entombed in an anchorage in what is now Germany as brides of Christ under Benedictine rule, Hildegard and Jutta endure their monastic imprisonment for 30 years, during which time Hildegard experiences divine visions. When her anchoress finally dies, Hildegard is granted “free passage in the abbey,” but her newfound liberty is accompanied by intensified visions and a desire to make those revelations manifest, an impulse roundly quelled by zealous monks. Nevertheless, years spent captive with Jutta strengthened Hildegard’s resolve, and she dutifully perseveres, composing 78 songs; penning a book and hundreds of letters to emperors, popes, and royalty; and going on to found two monasteries. Though confined primarily to the abbey and peopled by a small cast, Sharratt’s gripping story, like Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, is primarily about relationships forged under pressure. (Oct.)