cover image A Stolen Tongue

A Stolen Tongue

Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press, $23 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-87113-669-5

Widely varied notions of faith and mission, from the conventional to the bizarre, color this intriguing historical thriller about a 15th-century pilgrimage from Germany to Mt. Sinai. The narrative takes the form of a journal kept by Dominican Father Felix Fabri, beginning at sea in 1483. Felix seeks to visit the relics of his spiritual wife, St. Katherine of Alexandria, on whom he has developed a fixation that might strike contemporary readers as not being entirely in keeping with his vows--though such eroticized spirituality was not uncommon at the time. As pieces of Katherine's body disappear from churches along his party's route, Felix faces a troubling mystery made more strange by the appearance of a young woman named Arsinoe, whose possibly mad communications with the saint have earned her the sobriquet, Tongue of St. Katherine. The pilgrims' voyage is arduous enough, but with the added intrigue of the disappearing relics, and conflicts that try Felix's faith and corrupt his judgment, they will be pushed to the brink of despair. First-novelist Holman pulls her readers along with odd riddles and careful suspense. As absorbing as is her portrayal of the premodern world is, her feel for timeless ironies is also sure: Felix decries the strange, unholy ways of the ""Saracens"" while he searches for his dead ""wife,"" whose dried-out tongue he keeps in a pouch around his neck. While the plot's resolution is a bit unsatisfying, this is a strong debut, an often enthralling yarn that draws the reader right in among the pilgrims on their harrowing trek. (Jan.)