by Claudia H. Long
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Josefina's Sin offers a fictional glimpse of the seventeenth-century Mexican nun and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz amid the story of a dissatisfied hacienda wife. Sor Juana, an educated lady-in-waiting at a Mexican court, became a nun in 1669 but continued to write sensous, if cryptic, poetry and dramatic works commissioned by her admirers, and continued to attend court soirees.
The novel centers on the fictional Josefina, a country innocent. Invited to a marquesa's court without her husband, Josefina is intimidated but eager. She quickly finds herself in over her head. The ladies at court are vicious rivals. Worse, the sadistic marqués singles her out to become his next victim. Her dubious protector is a bishop who tutored Josefina when he was a young priest, furtively introducing her to "the bursting flora of the works of Calderón de la Barca, or the earthy delights of the villancicos, songs of the people...." At court, the literary seduction turns physical, and Josefina responds. Afterward, every false accusation reminds her of her secret shame. As compensation for the hell of court life, Sor Juana's offer to teach Josefina the art of poetry is as tempting as the bishop's attentions, though equally risky. The Spanish Inquisition fostered an air of repression in Mexico as in Spain, but in Mexico could seem distant - until it decided a Mexican deserved its notice.
Readers offended by explicit sex will want to avoid Josefina's Sin, which stresses Josefina's sexual education as much as her poetic striving. A few scenes verge on sado-masochistic pornography. Every man who professes to love Josefina exploits or betrays her in one way or another, from the marqués to her philandering husband, but she finally achieves a revenge proportionate to her suffering. A highlight of the novel is Sor Juana's maddeningly mysterious poetry, translated into English by the author: "If love be its source/And the stream is divided/Will the river rush faster/To flow once more together?" (2011; 331 pages, including a Note separating history from fiction)
More about Josefina's Sin at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Interview with author Claudia H. Long
Other novels about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz:
Sor Juana's Second Dream by Alica Gaspar de Alba (1999), a literary novel about Sor Juana which (unlike Josefina's Sin) envisions her as a lesbian. More info
Hunger’s Brides by Paul Anderson (2005), a novel which moves between contemporary Mexico and Sor Juana's time, linking her story with that of a disgraced former professor whose student and lover became obsessed with Sor Juana. More info
Works by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and nonfiction about her life:
A Sor Juana Anthology translated by Alan S. Trueblood (1988). More info
Sor Juana's Love Poems translated by Joan Larkin (2003). More info
Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz (1988), a biography of Sor Juana. More info
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz at the Poets.org website
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