Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Illuminations is about the extraordinary medieval German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, whose parents made her become an anchorite in 1106 when she was only eight years old. The novel offers poetic, horrifyingly vivid impressions of the dedication ceremony, a funeral service in which Hildegard dies to the world before being sealed with Jutta, her older companion by a few years, into a pair of narrow rooms in the Abbey of Disibodenberg. "The funeral tapers, the bed of earth - this night I was to die. To be buried with Christ.... Holy water fell on my back like rain, wetting me through the prickly hair shirt. Incense and the stink of dank earth filled my nose.... I choked and coughed as the archbishop sprinkled ash on us. Every part of my body shriveled as he spoke the Rite of Extreme Unction, reserved for those on their deathbed.... Tears slid from my eyes as I watched the lay brothers brick up the doorway that Jutta and I had passed through but would never be allowed to exit."
Only Hildegard's mystical visions take her outside the confinement of the anchorage. "Barefoot and mother-naked, I found myself within a greening garden so beautiful that it made me cry out. Each blade of grass and newly unfurled spring leaf shimmered in the sun. Every bush and tree was frothy with blossoms and heavy with fruit at the same time.... The Lady's voice whispered: See the eternal paradise that has never fallen."
Is a novel whose main character lives walled into close confinement from childhood dull? Not a bit. Hildegard's vibrant spirit and passion for life are honed by conflict with Jutta, the monks of Disibodenberg and others, friendly and unfriendly, who rule their lives through a small grille for speech and a hatch for food and water. Hildegard's eventual emergence is a miraculous triumph - wrought in Illuminations less by supernatural wonders than by Hildegard's no less miraculous creativity and strength of will. (2012, 272 pages, including an Afterword discussing the history and sources behind the novel)More about Illuminations at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository