A Stolen Tongue - Sheri Holman Review forthcoming (maybe w/ pictures, if I can find a good one of Saint Catherine).

I have now read Sheri Holman's entire oeuvre (as of June 2011) and can say that she remains one of my favorite authors. This, her first novel, is also my favorite among the four she's written so far. I suspect that's because of its medieval milieu; by interest and education, the Middle Ages is my historical era.

The narrator, Felix Fabri, is a historical figure - a German monk from Ulm who wrote of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and surrounds in Fratris Felicis Fabri Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae, Arabiae et Egypti peregrinatoniem, in 3 volumes. In Holman's hands, Felix comes alive as a living, breathing man. As she managed for the 19th century in The Dress Lodger, so Holman manages here - putting you into 15th century Europe and the Middle East. None of her characters think or act like transplanted 21st century people yet Felix's crisis of faith will be familiar to most.

There are moments where your skin crawls with sympathetic lice and fleas:

"Seven ladderlike steps lead downstairs to the fetid, cavernous pilgrims' deck. All along the floor, in even rectangles, we chalk off our berths, side by side, with the ship's curving wall as our headboard and our trunks, placed toward the ship's center, serving as footboards. Only the Homesick stay belowdecks out of choice, and it depresses me even more to move among them. They love the dark, rotting wood that blocks this foreign sun and magnifies what few familiar Western smells remain: smoke and European piss, beer sweat, pine pitch. When the rest of us roll up our mattresses in the morning and suspend them from the rafters, the Homesick turn over and imagine their wives' hair on the pillow next to them, or the smell of their pet roosters' feathers on the windowsill, or the sound only their dog makes when his paws skid in frosty winter horse manure. They tell each other long detailed stories about their backyard cabbage gardens and their children's agues, but rarely listen to anyone's but their own."

The story is told from Felix's POV as he maintains a travel diary for his brothers in the monastery. He journeys to Jerusalem and Mt. Sinai as the confessor of Lord Tucher and his son, Ursus. His other companions are John Lazinus, a Hungarian archdeacon, and Conrad, a fellow German and barber (which, as anyone familiar with medieval history understands means "surgeon" as well).

Felix is a devotee of the cult of St. Catherine of Alexandria*, who was struck from the Roman Church's Calendar of Saints in 1969 because there's no evidence that she actually existed (likely she's a Christianization of the Hypatia of Alexandria legend). Such doubts did not exist in 1483, however, and Felix has been visiting Catherine's shrines along the pilgrimage route. In Cyprus, he finds that someone has stolen her relic, and - as he progresses - he realizes that someone is stealing all of Catherine's relics. The chief suspect is Arsinoe, a disturbed young woman who has been channeling Catherine since she was a child and is known as "St. Katherine's Tongue," in consequence (many times Felix simply refers to her as "the Tongue"). She is pursued by her brother, Niccolo, whose motives are by no means pure. Despite both men's efforts, Arsinoe is always one step ahead of them. The novel's climax comes at St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai, where the saint's body was miraculously translated after her murder at the hands of the Roman Emperor Maxentius.

The ending is somewhat bleaker than those of Holman's later work. Felix's symbolic marriage to Catherine is shattered and his faith sorely tested. As he writes: "We are only happy in ruin, brothers, for only then can we be sure we have nothing to lose" and the book ends with this passage from Isaiah:

"We grope for the wall like the blind,
and we grope as if we had no eyes:
we stumble at noon as in the night,
we are in desolate places as dead men.
We roar like bears, and
mourn sore like doves: We
look for judgment, but there is none;
for salvation, but it is far off from us."

Highly recommended, as are all of Holman's works.

* NB: St. Catherine is the St. Katherine of Gene Wolf's The Shadow of the Torturer, patron of the Guild of Torturers.

** And here's the promised picture. I chose Caravaggio's because it was the most attractive in my opinion. Be assured you can find a wealth of other examples to choose from: