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3.8 10
by Kathryn Harrison

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Francisca de Luarac, the daughter of a poor Spanish silk grower, is a dreamer of fabulous dreams. Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, dances in slippers of fine Spanish silk in the French Court of the Sun King and imagines her own enchanted future. Born on the same day—in an age when superstition, repression, and the Inquisition reign—the


Francisca de Luarac, the daughter of a poor Spanish silk grower, is a dreamer of fabulous dreams. Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, dances in slippers of fine Spanish silk in the French Court of the Sun King and imagines her own enchanted future. Born on the same day—in an age when superstition, repression, and the Inquisition reign—the lives of these two young women unfold in tandem, barely touching. Each hoards the memory of her adored lost mother like an amulet. Francica's obsession with her lover, a Catholick priest, will shaper her fate. Marie Loouise is yoked by political expediency to the mad, imptoent Carlos II of Spain. But even as their twin destinies spiral inexorably toward disaster, both Queen and commoner cultivate a dangerous, secret life dedicated to resistance, transcendence, and love. Written in gorgeous prose that has the sheen of silk, Kathryn Harrison's POISON vividlyreminds us of the persistence of desire, the passion that exists between mothers and daughters, and the sorcery of dreams.

Editorial Reviews

Janet Burroway
"Poison" is a hothouse of a novel, overwrought and heavily scented; it will not be to everybody's taste. It is also serious and thoughtful, its vivid colors partly concealing issues about the way we subjectify biography in order to make meaning of our own lives. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perhaps Harrison's most signal achievement in this story of two doomed women is her reflection of their time and place: Spain in the 17th century, a sordid and barbarous era. Harrison (Exposure) is totally in command of her tragic narrative, which proceeds with the stately, mesmerizing pace of a pavane, stepping to one side to look behind, to the other to look ahead. Francesca Luarca, a humble silk farmer's daughter, is arrested for witchery. Her story parallels that of Queen Maria Luisa, the French Bourbon princess married to the impotent king of Spain, whose inability to produce an heir to the throne condemns her to death as surely as imprisonment in the Inquisition's prisons dooms Francesca. Francesca commits several sins: she begs a priest to teach her to read (a dangerous ambition for a woman); he also introduces her to carnal delights and impregnates her. Francesca is destroyed by passion, the queen-who is also called a witch by the jeering mob-by its complete absence. Hovering over everything is the ominous shadow of the Inquisition, fed by a greedy, corrupt church that plays on fears of devils and witches but forgives ``sins'' on the payment of hefty fines. Harrison weaves a marvelous tapestry of almost palpable details: people in Madrid wore enormous jeweled spectacles, ``an enhancement to dignity rather than eyesight''; ``the Spanish nobility's desire for loftiness was so intense and so literal that aristocratic women balanced on stilts.'' This is hardly an historical novel in its accepted sense, however, since Harrison pulls free of exact historical documentation. While richly imagined, the narrative is sometimes overwrought; being confined inside the heads of the poisoned, delirious queen and the peasant woman torn by the Inquisition's rack is a feverish experience. This claustrophobic darkness, the unremitting misery of the story, may deter some readers. For others, it will be an illuminating portrait of a woman's lot in an age poisoned by superstition and the church's tyranny. (May)
Library Journal
Harrison examines the lives of two women in 17th-century Madrid. One, Maria Luisa, the French-born queen of Carlos II, is dying of poison because she has not produced an heir in ten years of marriage. The other is Francisca de Luarca, a silk grower's daughter, who lies in the Inquisition's prison, accused of witchcraft. As Francisca reviews her life and that of the queen, a panoramic view of Spain emerges, from the superstitious peasants of Castile to the equally superstitious nobility of a fading country. The evocative historical setting is a departure for Harrison (e.g., Exposure, LJ 12/92), whose previous novels viewed contemporary life. However, her brilliant descriptions and compelling examination of the minds and motivations of her two heroines, each condemned by society for wanting happiness, will maintain the author's reputation as a writer of power and rare sensibility. For most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/95.]-Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, Kan.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In a year of ample rain, one hectare, carefully tended, would sustain enough mulberry trees to feed about one hundred and forty-four thousand silkworms. The trees' first buds appeared just after Palm Sunday. They unfurled by Whitsun and were in full summer leaf by the time we celebrated the feast of Our Lady. In autumn we pruned the bare branches and with the wood we collected we made more bonfires for Saint John the Baptizer than any other family in Quintanapalla.

Our lives followed those of our trees and our worms. Each year we carried almost seven thousand pounds of leaves to the silk house. Leaves bundled in baskets and bags and yoked to tired shoulders or pushed in the old barrow. Leaves wrapped in a linen and balanced on an upright head, or dragged in a sack along the dry ground so that they got dusty and had to be washed.

I was a child of five years, smaller than other girls my age, small enough that I could walk under my grandfather's table without ducking my head, but I was not so small that I could not carry my share of the mulberry leaves; and, like my father and mother, my grandfather and my sister, I carried leaves from our trees to our worms, bearing them on my head in a basket that was broad and flat like my mother's, except that it was half the size.

The silkworms ate without cease. Day into night into day, we forced them to feed; they paused only to split their skins. After the fourth and final molt, each worm as long and as thick as my grandfather's thumb, they were ready to spin. One hundred and forty-four thousand worms of good quality, vigorous and industrious, could spin almost ninety pounds of silkcocoons, that total including the weight of the worms inside, which we killed by steaming the trays of sleeping cocoons over stones heated by fire and doused with water, smothering the worms in rising clouds of hot vapor. We had to kill them. If we did not, they would turn into silk moths; they would escape by chewing through the silk they had spun.

Each year, just before All Souls' Day, we took our ninety pounds, more or less, of raw silk cocoons from our one hectare to market. There we sold them; and from the market they were carried with the harvests of other silk farmers on a great tumbrel pulled by oxen to the cisterns in Soria, where they were soaked and soaked and soaked again, and then unraveled. The unraveling required the labor of comb girls, who clawed the silk apart with the nails of their middle fingers notched in one, two, three places-notched to the detriment of their lovers' backs, or the flesh of anyone else they might care to touch, themselves included.

After the labor of the worms was thus undone, the silk was ready to be twisted into thread at the throwing mills, also in the city of Soria. In the mill yards the crated unraveled silk was unloaded by the men who worked there, the shining work of our worms thus passing from the hands of maidens to those of swains: from one to the other, like a secret, like a greeting, like a whispered promise of more and better gifts to come. Or so I liked to dream as I fed the worms, for, though I had never seen a twisting mill myself, I knew that its clacking, groaning machines were tended by young men who labored long days for little money, not even a hundred maravedis, a scant handful of coins-barely enough to buy them their suppers and an occasional trinket for a sweetheart, my papa said.

Twisted into hanks of fine, strong thread, the silk was crated again and carried from the mill to the wash works nearby, where it was tied in bags and boiled in soapy water, then rinsed and dried and bleached in fumes of burning sulfur.

From the wash works, the silk was crated one last time and then carried to the dye artists in Epila, whose hands were permanently stained black from endless immersion in pigments; their ears and noses, too, if they were like me and in the habit of absentmindedly scratching an itch. The dye artists made our silk purple, perhaps, or red or green, dropping each white hank into a cauldron of color. I could picture the nearly naked vat boys as they slowly stirred the strands with a pole, sweat running down their thin chests and into their loincloths. For in the dye works with its boiling cauldrons they could wear nothing more, and naked they carried the dripping hanks out to the factory yard's great racks and hung them there to dry.

Woven, then, by the weavers in that same city: each lustrous colored thread held tight by a loom's jumping heddle until it was battened fast to another, made to lie forever between its neighbors--one slender stroke of color after another, placed so as to create a pattern, a shining, dreamlike scene of ever-leaping deer and wheeling birds, of imagined animals following one another, caught in the fabric for all eternity. Or an endless, meditative weave of repeating geometric symmetries: squares inside squares, stripes and circles and crescents, trapezoids and triangles and pyramids of silk.

A year of ample rain. In truth, I cannot remember a year of ample rain, other than the one in which it all arrived between one Sabbath and the next and coursed down the mountain and through our house. But by the end of a tolerably wet season, our worms produced silk sufficient for about forty pairs of hose-a modest accomplishment given the work it took, the efforts of our whole family, though one that grew in my imagination, and in my dreams. Grew until it was enough silk to clothe the grandest assembly the land had ever seen.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Harrison is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her first novel, Thicker Than Water, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, Exposure, was also a New York Times Notable Book, and a national bestseller. She lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Colin Harrison.

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Poison 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the most beautiful book I have ever read! It is the only book I have read by Harrison, but I intend to read every book she has written. She writes in such a way that all you have to do is close your eyes, and you can see the characters and the plot come to life. I can read this book over and over again and never get tired of it. The story is absolutly beautiful in it's honesty, it pulls you into it and you feel like you are acutally watching Francesca and Maria Luisa with your own eyes. Some of the sexual scenes are a little graphic, so I would recommend this book to anyone with a more open mind. I have totally fallen in love with this story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't think of a single thing that disappointed me about this novel. If anything, I wish I had read it sooner. The language was beautiful, rhythmic, and so descriptive that I was transported to 17th century Spain and France. It was filled with so much information about the era, more than many other historical novels I've read. Yet the characters were fully developed and quite likeable. I liked the way Francisca and Maria Luisa's stories were told parallel to each other, carefully woven together. It made for a quick, urgent pace. This is a novel that has it all--romance, violence, death, intrigue, mystery, history.... I think there is something in it for everyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very boring.....could not even finish it!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Harrison is an excellent writer, with a style and vocublary that is rare. The story itself was very well researched and therefore educational as well as thought provoking. When reading this book I often found myself captivated and when I stopped I thought I was in 17th century Spain. It truly transports you into it. This is a dark tale about hopelessness, and reminds us of the dangers of intolerance and extremities. The author is very bold in that she tells this story without care for the reader's sensitivities, so honesty is not sacrificed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago