cover image MIRABILIS


Susann Cokal, . . BlueHen, $25.95 (389pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14753-1

Sprawling, spiritual and crudely sensual, Cokal's debut novel is neither for the weak of heart nor the faint of stomach. In 14th-century France, in the village of Villeneuve, a town beset by plague witnesses a miracle: a young virgin takes her first communion and levitates above an awestruck crowd. But Blanche the Astonishing goes from saint to pariah when the girl bears an illegitimate child nine months later and refuses to name the father. At age 12, that child, Bonne Tardieu, witnesses her mother's imprisonment and immolation at the hands of an angry clergy. She grows up to be a wet nurse, but business is bad for an outcast with only a devout sculptor and a troubled dwarf as friends. Bonne's life changes when she catches the eye of Radegonde Putemonnie, the town's wealthiest woman, who is pregnant with her dead husband's child and stands to inherit his fortune only if she can bear an heir. Radegonde selects Bonne as her wet nurse, which means ample access to food at a time when the rest of the besieged villagers are starving. Bonne shares her good fortune, allowing the townspeople who rejected her to suckle at her always-flowing breasts. When a series of coincidences lead to the mysterious appearance of a Madonna sculpted in Bonne's likeness, the villagers hail her a saint—and Radegonde a witch. Bonne is perplexed not only by her sudden change in social status but by her very unsaintly attraction to the seductive Radegonde. A visceral, absorbing account of medieval life from the perspective of its outsiders, Cokal's unsettling novel is rich with passions both religious and sexual—and with an awareness of the occasional fine line between the two. (July)