Holy Fools: A Novel

( 17 )


With her internationally bestselling novels Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, and Coastliners, Joanne Harris has woven intoxicating spells that celebrate the sensuous while exposing the passion, secrets, and folly beneath the surface of rustic village life. In Holy Fools, her most ambitious and accomplished novel to date, she transports us back to a time of intrigue and turmoil, of deception and masquerade.

In the year 1605, a young widow, pregnant and ...

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With her internationally bestselling novels Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, and Coastliners, Joanne Harris has woven intoxicating spells that celebrate the sensuous while exposing the passion, secrets, and folly beneath the surface of rustic village life. In Holy Fools, her most ambitious and accomplished novel to date, she transports us back to a time of intrigue and turmoil, of deception and masquerade.

In the year 1605, a young widow, pregnant and alone, seeks sanctuary at the small Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer on the island of Noirs Moustiers off the Brittany coast. After the birth of her daughter, she takes up the veil, and a new name, Soeur Auguste. But the peace she has found in re-mote isolation is shattered five years later by the events that follow the death of her kind benefactress, the Reverend Mother.

When a new abbess — the daughter of a corrupt noble family elevated by the murder of King Henri IV — arrives at Sainte Marie-de-la-mer, she does not arrive alone. With her is her personal confessor and spiritual guide, Père Colombin, a man Soeur Auguste knows all too well. For the newcomer is Guy LeMerle, a charlatan and seducer now masquerading as a priest, and the one man she fears more than any other.

Soeur Auguste has a secret. Once she was l'Ailée, "The Winged One," star performer of a troupe led by LeMerle, before betrayal forced her to change her identity. But now the past has found her. Before long, thanks to LeMerle, suspicion and debauchery are breeding like a plague within the convent's walls — fueled by dark rumors of witchcraft, part of the false priest's brilliantly orchestratedscheme of revenge. To protect herself and her beloved child, l'Ailée will have to perform one last act of dazzling daring more audacious than any she has previously attempted.

About the Author

Joanne Harris is the author of the international bestselling novels Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, and the forthcoming Holy Fools. Joanne lives in Huddersfield, England, with her husband and daughter.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Harris tosses off even the most purple prose with such aplomb that readers may give in to the sheer silliness of it. — Andrew Santella
Publishers Weekly
"Love not often, but forever" is an adage with dangerous implications for Juliette, a gypsy acrobat in 17th-century France who strives to balance her wild yearnings with her hard-won wisdom in this passionate novel from the author of Chocolat and Five Quarters of the Orange. Harris gave hints in the latter novel of a darker sensibility, and she fully indulges that inclination here, broodingly exploring the mechanics of mass hysteria and the clash between the desires of the flesh and spiritual cravings. Juliette's involving narration alternates with the amoral reflections of her rogue lover, Guy LeMerle, the Blackbird ("He lived on perpetual credit and never went to church"). LeMerle is the leader of Juliette's troupe, which is disbanded after a clash with a town's authorities; at the same time, LeMerle abandons the pregnant Juliette, who is persecuted as a witch. Five years later, Juliette, now called Soeur Auguste, and her daughter, Fleur, have found refuge at the Abbey of Sainte-Marie-de-la-mer on the Brittany coast. Then LeMerle arrives at the abbey disguised as Father Confessor to the newly appointed abbess, Isabelle, a preternaturally severe girl of 12 whose uncle happens to be LeMerle's nemesis, the bishop of vreux. Isabelle causes Fleur to be removed from the abbey, and while Juliette struggles to get her back, LeMerle manipulates the nuns into believing Satan has their convent in thrall, in a complicated plot to revenge himself on the bishop. This fictional cassoulet suggests Aldous Huxley's nonfiction work The Devils of Loudun, with "demonically" possessed nuns caught in a web of sexual repression and political and religious oppression during an era of upheaval in France. Harris adds spicy characterizations, tart dark humor and seductively pungent prose, and poses some provocative questions: can 65 nuns be so easily misled? why does Juliette find herself drawn to such a selfish man? The title supplies an answer with almost unholy glee. (Feb. 3) Forecast: Readers looking for another Chocolat will be disappointed, but those who appreciate Harris's storytelling skills and enjoy fiction with a gothic twist will love this. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
It is 1610, and from her cell in the Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer Soeur Auguste reminisces about her life with the players, troupes of masked and powdered young entertainers roaming the French countryside. She has sought refuge with her daughter among a community of nuns who share a life of seclusion and prayer. The solace of life in the abbey is suddenly shattered with the death of their elderly abbess and the arrival of a young replacement who aspires to greatness. Gone is their life of relaxed piety and comfort, replaced by the rigors of fasting, masses, and hard work. Rebellion is near when in walks Guy LeMerle, a flamboyant former player masquerading as priest. In a brief few months, he transforms the abbey into a play within itself, full of tragedy, revenge, suspicion, lust, and chaos. Soeur Auguste must restore the abbey to peace-by returning to her roots as a player. Harris (Chocolat; Five Quarters of the Orange) treats readers to a feast for the senses, an aromatic m lange of 17th-century France and its roiling Catholicism. A cleverly structured drama populated with timelessly colorful characters, this is sure to be a hit with the author's wide community of readers. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/03.]-Susan Clifford Braun, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Baroque thriller, set in 17th-century France, about the travails of a young nun who must keep silent as a charlatan priest tries to take over her convent. When Mere Isabelle arrives in 1610 to take charge as the new abbess of the convent of Sainte-Marie-Mere on the remote island of Noirs Moustiers, Soeur Auguste knows right away that something is seriously wrong. For one thing, Mere Isabelle's chaplain, Pere Colombin, is not a priest at all but rather the mountebank actor Guy LeMerle. How can Soeur Auguste know this? For the same reason that she can't reveal his identity: LeMerle is her old lover and the father of her daughter Fleur (who lives in the convent with her mother). Soeur Auguste (nee Juliette) has had a colorful past: Raised by Gypsies, she was educated by an Italian Jew and toured for some years with a troupe of wandering actors headed by LeMerle. Once a courtier with patrons among the aristocracy, LeMerle lost favor after one of his productions was denounced as blasphemous by an outraged bishop, and he was thereafter reduced to scouring the provinces for an audience. It was a difficult life, but there were compensations: the beautiful and talented Juliette fell in love with LeMerle and stood by him in all his difficulties. He repaid her by deserting her, pregnant, in the middle of the night. The nuns took in Juliette and her daughter, and the convent proved to be an agreeable home for both-until the arrival of the new abbess and LeMerle. Soon Fleur is taken away from Juliette and a new austerity regime begins. Juliette has the goods on LeMerle-but he has the power to return Fleur. So it's a stalemate. But what on earth is he after? Let's just say it has something to do withrevenge, which as we all know is a dish best eaten cold. Harris (Coastliners, 2002, etc.) does a creditable job re-creating the atmosphere of a very distant time and place, and infuses it with a sharp if somewhat obvious tale. Author tour. Agent: Howard Morhaim
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781856867283
  • Publisher: Ulverscroft Large Print Books, Ltd.
  • Publication date: 5/1/2003
  • Format: Cassette
  • Pages: 1

Table of Contents

Part 1 Juliette 1
Part 2 LeMerle 93
Part 3 Isabelle 205
Part 4 Perette 277
Epilogue 353
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First Chapter

Holy Fools
A Novel

Chapter One

July 3rd, 1610

It begins with the players. Seven of them, six men and a girl, she in sequins and ragged lace, they in leathers and silk. All of them masked, wigged, powdered, painted; Arlequin and Scaramouche and the long-nosed Plague Doctor, demure Isabelle and the lecherous Géronte, their gilded toenails bright beneath the dust of the road, their smiles whitened with chalk, their voices so harsh and so sweet that from the first they tore at my heart.

They arrived unannounced in a green and gold caravan, its panels scratched and scarred, but the scarlet inscription still legible for those who could read it.


And all around the script paraded nymphs and satyrs, tigers and olifants in crimson, rose, and violet. Beneath, in gold, sprawled the proud words:


I didn't believe it myself, though they say old Henri had a commoner's tastes, preferring a wild-beast show or a comédie-ballet to the most exquisite of tragedies. Why, I danced for him myself on the day of his wedding, under the austere gaze of his Marie. It was my finest hour.

Lazarillo's troupe was nothing in comparison, and yet I found the display nostalgic, moving to a degree far beyond the skill of the players themselves. Perhaps a premonition; perhaps a fleeting vision of what once was, before the spoilers of the new Inquisition sent us into enforced sobriety, but as they danced, their purples and scarlets and greens ablaze in the sun's glare, I seemed to see the brave, bright pennants of ancient armies moving out across the battlefield, a defiant gesture to the sheet-shakers and apostates of the new order.

The Beasts and Marvels of the inscription consisted of nothing more marvelous than a monkey in a red coat and a small black bear, but there was, besides the singing and the masquerade, a fire-eater, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, and even a rope-dancer, so that the courtyard was aflame with their presence, and Fleur laughed and squealed with delight, hugging me through the brown weave of my habit.

The dancer was dark and curly-haired, with gold rings on her feet. As we watched she sprang onto a taut rope held on one side by Géronte and on the other by Arlequin. At the tambourin's sharp command they tossed her into the air, she turned a somersault, and landed back on the rope as neatly as I might once have done. Almost as neatly, in any case; for I was with the Théâtre des Cieux, and I was L'Ailée, the Winged One, the Sky-dancer, the Flying Harpy. When I took to the high rope on my day of triumph, there was a gasp and a silence and the audience -- soft ladies, powdered men, bishops, tradesmen, servants, courtiers, even the king himself -- blanched and stared. Even now I remember his face -- his powdered curls, his eager eyes -- and the deafening surge of applause. Pride's a sin, of course, though personally I've never understood why. And some would say it's pride brought me where I am today -- brought low, if you like, though they say I'll rise higher in the end. Oh, when Judgment Day comes I'll dance with the angels, Soeur Marguerite tells me, but she's a crazy, poor, twitching, tic-ridden thing, turning water into wine with the mixture from a bottle hidden beneath her mattress. She thinks I don't know, but in our dorter, with only a thin partition between each narrow bed, no one keeps their secrets for long. No one, that is, but me.

The Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer stands on the western side of the half-island of Noirs Moustiers. It is a sprawling building set around a central courtyard, with wooden outbuildings to the side and around the back. For the past five years it has been my home; by far the longest time I have ever stayed in any place. I am Soeur Auguste -- who I was does not concern us: not yet, anyway. The abbey is perhaps the only refuge where the past may be left behind. But the past is a sly sickness. It may be carried on a breath of wind; in the sound of a flute; on the feet of a dancer. Too late, as always, I see this now; but there is nowhere for me to go but forward. It begins with the players. Who knows where it may end?

The rope-dancer's act was over. Now came juggling and music while the leader of the troupe -- Lazarillo himself, I presumed -- announced the show's finale.

"And now, good sisters!" His voice, trained in theaters, rolled across the courtyard. "For your pleasure and edification, for your amusement and delight -- Lazarillo's World Players are proud to perform a Comedy of Manners, a most uproarious tale! I give you" -- he paused dramatically, doffing his long-plumed tricorne -- "Les Amours de l'Hermite!"

A crow, black bird of misfortune, flew overhead. For a second I felt the cool flicker of its shadow across my face and, with my fingers, forked the sign against malchance. Tsk-tsk, begone!

The crow seemed unmoved. He fluttered, ungainly, to the head of the well in the courtyard's center, and I caught an impudent gleam of yellow from his eye. Below him, Lazarillo's troupe proceeded, undisturbed. The crow cocked his head quickly, greasily, in my direction.

Tsk-tsk, begone! I once saw my mother banish a swarm of wild bees with nothing more than that cantrip; but the crow simply opened his beak at me in silence, exposing a blue sliver of tongue. I suppressed the urge to throw a stone.

Besides, the play was already beginning; an evil cleric wished to seduce a beautiful girl ...

Holy Fools
A Novel
. Copyright © by Joanne Harris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


Joanne Harris is known for crafting enticing storylines set in deliciously imaginative locales. With Holy Fools, she once again transports us to a time and venue steeped in fervor. The opening scene alone signals the novel's ironic and intriguing undertones as a troupe of vagabond actors dazzles the residents of a remote French abbey, tucked away on an island off the coast of Brittany. It is the year 1610, an era of violent upheaval following the murder of King Henri IV. And with that brief visit from the performers, it will be a year of upheaval for the nuns of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer as well. Before Part One concludes, an adolescent is installed as Mother Superior, the acting troupe's seductive star begins masquerading as her confessor, and Sister Auguste (a.k.a. Juliette) reveals to us her former life as an acrobat, rope-dancer, and lover to the man now impersonating a priest.

Juliette's story lies at the heart of Holy Fools. Hers is a tale of love and deception, passion and revenge, as she and 'Father Colombin' engage in the greatest (and most dangerous) show of their lives. Through each of its clever facets, Holy Fools raises a host of provocative topics. We hope that the following questions will enhance your discussion of this captivating novel.

Discussion Topics

  1. Near the end of chapter five, troupe member La Borgne says, 'Holy Fools, they called us. God's innocents. Nowadays they're just as likely to throw stones as to spare a crust for a poor unfortunate.' What did Juliette's performance days teach her about fools and foolishness? Who are the novel's wisest characters? Who in the novel is holy?

  2. Parenting plays a significant role in the novel's plot; Juliette is a devoted daughter and mother, while LeMerle and Isabelle imitate the roles of spiritual father and mother at the abbey. Discuss the other varieties of family and parenting presented in the book.

  3. Though Joanne Harris emphasizes that Holy Fools 'is altogether fictional and should not be seen as a historical representation of specific events,' she says that idea for the came to her when she was reading a history book, which mentioned an eleven-year-old Mother Superior who enacted stringent reforms at an abbey in Port-Royal. What other surprising depictions of life in seventeenth century France did you encounter while reading the novel? Are any contemporary cultures as turbulent as Juliette's?

  4. Do you agree or disagree with the advice of Juliette's mother to 'love not often, but forever'? Is this a realistic or idealistic aphorism?

  5. Holy Fools contains numerous shifts in point of view. What distinguishes these perspectives? In what way does this device affect the tone of the novel?

  6. Juliette finds herself in a vortex of controversy regarding science, religion, superstition, and allegations of witchcraft. Though the reader is privy to the truth (the well water contained dye, not blood; Juliette's 'flight' was orchestrated with a rope) is the novel completely devoid of miracles?

  7. By kidnapping Fleur, LeMerle is able to control Juliette. Were he to try to exert the same level of influence over you, what would be your sacred 'bargaining chip'?

  8. Healing is a recurring theme in Holy Fools; the characters present a variety of mental and physical illnesses. Would modern medicine have resolved all of their symptoms? How do you define enlightened healing? What is our attitude toward contemporary plagues?

  9. Joanne Harris has featured gustatory pleasures such as chocolate and blackberry wine in her previous books. Are there any similar cravings in Holy Fools?

  10. Juliette fears confinement, yet the island itself is confining and can only be escaped with the tide allows it. Nonetheless, Juliette turns to it as a place of freedom. In what ways is the abbey liberating for her? Where might she have sought similar help had the novel been set in the twenty-first century?

  11. In what ways is the abbey a microcosm of LeMerle's performance troupe?

  12. The abbey is inhabited by women but overseen by men. Does this gender distinction appear to affect the nuns' attitudes toward womanhood and sexual maturity? What do the nuns discover about themselves when LeMerle arrives?

  13. Joanne Harris has written that neither this novel nor Chocolat were meant as indictments of Catholicism; she believes that churches and other institutions are only as good or as bad as those who serve them. With this in mind, discuss how the men and women in Holy Fools regard and disregard the teachings of the church.

  14. Consider the overall spectrum of Joanne Harris's works. What previous storylines and cultural vignettes are enhanced by Holy Fools?

  15. Is LeMerle entirely a villain? Does he have redeeming qualities? What is the basis for Juliette's attraction to him? What do you predict for their life together?

About the Author

Joanne Harris is the author of Chocolat, which was nominated for the prestigious Whitbread Award. Her other critically acclaimed works include the novels Coastliners, Five Quarters of the Orange, and Blackberry Wine, as well as My French Kitchen, a collection of her family recipes and reminiscences. She studied modern and medieval languages at Saint Catharine's College, Cambridge, and taught French for twelve years at a boys grammar school. The daughter of a French mother and an English father, she lives in her native Yorkshire with her husband and their daughter.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 17 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2004

    Best Book I've Read in Ages

    Chocolat was a yummy confection, but this book is dark Chocolat: complex, intricate, lingering. I could not put it down. It has everything a great read should have: a central character, Juliette, who is so fully drawn that a reader almost slides into her skin, a plot that twists and turns in unexpected but entirely logical ways, and beautiful, evocative language that moves the story along smoothly and effortlessly. I also love Le Merle, the 'villain' of this piece . . . too often, villains are totally evil and despicable, but this one has dimension--we can slide into his skin too.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2003

    New Pageturner from Joanne Harris

    Holy Fools, Joanne Harris¿s latest book, explores themes that were introduced in Chocolat, as well as in Joanne¿s subsequent books, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, and Coastliners: a strong woman and young daughter making a new life in a challenging place; the contrasts and interplay between the stoicism and superstitions of Catholicism against the color and baudiness of the theater, acrobats, and gypsies; the protection that women afford one another through loyalty and friendship. However, Harris takes this book in new directions: unlike her previous four novels, this is not a food story, and Holy Fools does not take place in modern times but in the 1600¿s. This time, the main character is former acrobat Juliette, now known as Soeur Auguste, raising herbs at first in the convent garden at the Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, where she has escaped with her small child, Fleur. Soeur Auguste¿s dangerous past catches up with her, in the form of Guy LaMerle, who betrayed her before and reappears as imposter priest/confessor for the abbey, along with the abbey¿s new mother superior, a strident, underaged tyrant. The fake priest and the rule-bound abbess impose a prisonlike reign over the nuns, alienating friends, restricting communication, imposing new and cruel duties, and worst of all kidnapping Fleur. As if that weren¿t enough, LeMerle seems to be up to something evil, something self-serving, something that will affect the entire abbey. Only Juliette knows that he is an imposter, but LeMerle¿s hold over her assures her silence, and like the acrobat she once was, she continues to walk a tightrope to keep herself, her daughter, and her sisters safe. Holy Fools is fresh and intriguing, every bit the page-turner that Chocolat was, yet every bit a stand-alone winner of a book. With its visual scenes in the French countryside, the convent, and on the high wire, this would make a fabulous movie, full of color and action. This suspenseful tale transports the reader to a mysterious time and place,

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2010

    more of same

    this author has some of the most boring book covers so i'm glad bn asked about book covers in their review form. my wife likes this author so i've been obliged to keep buying all of the books & this was on clearance sale

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The Last Acte

    First of all, let me say that I only read Holy Fools out of admiration for its authoress. The story scared me, annoyed me, intrigued me, and fascinated me. The characters bothered me, confused me, and intrigued me. In the end, I pitied Juliette, hated the other nuns, and positively fell in love with Guy LeMerle! This review may seem contradictory, but I will leave you to decide whether or not you want to read this book. If there is one thing that I can promise you, though, Holy Fools is a wicked tale that you are never going to forget!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    I loved the movie "Chocolat," based on a book by Joanne Harris. So when I found a deal on "Holy Fools" I jumped at the chance to get to know her work. I'd have to say, this book was an excellent place for me to start. After all, it is set in a convent, and I did grow up Catholic.

    Of course, this is no modern convent with girls' high school attached, but rather a beautifully isolated place in seventeenth century France. The fact that I've taken vacations in the area only added to the attraction, and Harris's descriptions, combined with the old forms of names of towns, brought to life many memories and dreams.

    The characters here are no modern nuns either, but a delightful community of misfits seeking solace in a simple life set apart from the world. But their ordered existence is threatened by a figure from Juliette's past, and Juliette herself cannot expose the deceit without risking losing all she loves.

    The weather, the sea, statues and beliefs, rules and cruelties all combine to make this a fascinating tale. The worlds of Juliette's past and present, of court and coast, complexity and simplicity, even of faith and science, all come to glorious life. Loyalties are tested and stretched to the limit. Forgiveness and fondness fight for dominance. And the dangers faced by an all too human angel have the heart pounding as you read.

    I enjoyed the way the author lets us into her characters' heads, using first-person viewpoints of two very different protagonists, without confusion and without any lessening of the tension created by their secrets. A truly masterful tale; I really loved it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2008

    Good...very good

    I bought this as a bargain book and I am so glad I did. It was not at all what I expected, it was better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2008


    Actually, it's three stars and half for this book. The last third of this, otherwise, intriguing and engrossing novel was a decline in the plot. And the epilogue was simply disappointing. But, all in all, it's a well-crafted novel set in 17th century Europe with rich, colorful characters. I couldn't put it down but also felt a bit cheated at the end.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2004

    Wanted it to be Different

    I love to read the books written by JoAnn Harris. Blackberry Wine was the first book that I read by Harris, and I thought it was a great read, yet I was struggling from the start reading Holy Fools. I had to force myself through the first third of the book, and I never got to a place that I believed and accepted the small element of fantasy that is always unspoken in her books. I was disappointed, but I would never write off a new book offering by Harris.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2004

    Spellbinding Tale

    The year is 1610. For years, the rules at the Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer have been a bit lax; the place is in happy disorder but the nuns are content. All that changes with the arrival of Pere Colombin, and his charge, the new 12-year-old abbesse from a powerful and corrupt family. Unknown to all the nuns but one, Pere Columbin is really Guy LeMerle, a dubious character of possibly noble lineage who has his own deadly agenda for the abbey. The enigmatic LeMerle is a con man, swindler, and thief, whose veneer of charm is sufficient to convince others of his sincerity - in other words, someone who might be at home in a modern corporate boardroom. He has a 'history' with one of the nuns, Sister Auguste, his former protogee and lover from the past. From this point, things in the convent take a dark turn, with increasing chaos marked by intrigue, illicit love, accusations of witchcraft, and 'possession'. The narrative builds in almost unbearable suspense to a nail-biting finale. And underlying it all is the story of a complex and powerful love.

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