Like many of her novels, Justine places an attractive and intelligent woman at the forefront of the story. The fact that Joanna is a lesbian has very real implications. It is used to cast light on the social concerns of the time (late 1960s/early 1970s), and on the religious culture of Venice, but it never dominates the story. Her partner, the exquisite Sara, is something of a unique character in Justine’s work (and what initially attracted me to the story). Sara is transgendered, and although she herself isn’t quite sure where she falls in the transvestite/transsexual spectrum, she is clearly more comfortable in the expression of her femininity. Much like Joanna’s sexuality, her gender has immediate and ongoing implications for both women, and the development of their relationship (both personal and professional) casts its own light on events.
While there is an element of romance here, it’s rather more subdued than in some of Justine’s other novels, but it’s handled beautifully. When Joanna first meets Tadzio, she’s distinctly uncomfortable with the well-dressed young man who so blatantly defies gender stereotypes with his earrings, mascara, and lipstick. Although he knows his languages and his history, Joanna is justifiably concerned for the reaction his appearance is likely to elicit in the religious climate of Venice. When he returns the next day, this time as Sara, a tentative foundation of trust, respect, and friendship is established. Their relationship fluctuates over the course of the story, with both women making significant social gaffes with one another, but it isn’t long before we, as readers, begin to hope for the bloom of romance.
Visually, this is an absolutely gorgeous story, filled with a wealth of detail. Justine travelled extensively in her research, and that commitment to the story shows. From the streets of New York city to the canals of Venice; from the halls of academia to the vaults of the church; from the filthy depths of a Spanish prison cell to the equally filthy decks of a Venetian ship; in each case, Justine sets our feet firmly in the scene and allows us to see and feel not only what she herself witnessed, but what the characters are experiencing.
Historically, this is a tale within a tale, presenting us with the stories of two women – Sarah, whose sacrifice changed history significantly; and Leonora, whose trials have made it possible for that sacrifice to finally come to light. Much of the story is told through a series of letters written by Leonora, detailing her captivity, torture, and treacherous escape from the hands of the Inquisition. All of this is a result of her involvement in publishing the story of Sarah, which takes us back to ancient Rome, and provides an interesting eye-witness account of Jesus and his disciples. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, but to reveal the significance of her account, and why the Church has killed to keep it hidden, would be to spoil the mystery.
Overall, this is a story that works – and satisfies – on so many levels. It’s entertaining and informative, inspiring and challenging. There is no question that the mystery of Sarah’s story is controversial, but it’s a very interesting approach to history . . . and one that I, personally, found very attractive. Some readers may have trouble getting past their emotional response to the secret, but it truly is worth the effort involved. Definitely recommended.
Spring Celebration giveaways. Bold Strokes Books is offering one luck reader their choice of any title (print or electronic), which could very well be Sarah, Son of God (if the winner so chooses).
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