Julie Berry, The Passion of Dolssa, HarperCollins Australia, 1 April 2016, 336 pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781460752036
The Passion of Dolssa requires total commitment and engagement from its readers. Berry includes not only French words and phrases, but also antiquated languages, Latin and Old Provençal. There is a helpful glossary at the back, but paying attention to context and expression allows readers to grasp the nuances and beauty of these ancient words. The language also serves to position the novel into its medieval time period perfectly. There are a multitude of narrators, some there through the entire book (Botille and Lucien), and other voices which only appear briefly (Friar Arnault and Hugo). There are also several testimonial accounts – people questioned by inquisitors – and of course, the voice of the titled character, Dolssa. Finally, there are distinct time periods which shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. By framing the story within a story (within another story), Berry creates a complex narrative, and to lose sight of all the elements is to do the structure and the story a disservice. So, really what I am saying is this. Pay attention!
Paradoxically, it isn’t at all difficult to become absorbed in the plights of Dolssa and Botille, both living in fear of being renounced as a heretic (or someone who might be protecting one). It might sound like a grim and gruesome plot, and for some of the time, it is. I found myself struggling against the helplessness and absurdity of the situations. I also reacted against the voyeurism – desperate people watching and by extension, participating in the public deaths of mostly innocent victims and anyone associated with them. We readers too are part of the spectacle. It’s somewhat confronting.
However, it’s also funny and clever. The distinct voices build a rich picture, full of exquisite detail for all the senses. The time period (late 13th century) evokes many features of everyday life across the world, across the centuries – gossip, scandal, romance, inheritance, family and faith. But negative emotions appear as well – greed, betrayal, jealousy, grief and petty rivalries – causing much pain and trouble. Aah, the foibles of life.
Berry of course, isn’t content with just writing a good old yarn. Her concerns are legitimate and troubling. The hold and power of religious groups seem a long time ago, and it’s easy to judge the inquisitors of the middle ages, but it’s not a far stretch from what we see happening in some societies today. The struggle for women is real, and the hypocrisy is nicely reflected in the contrasting disbelief of Dolssa’s miracle healings with the acceptance of Botille’s younger sister, Sazia’s psychic abilities. The villagers accept both girls, and revere their gifts, but the church hierarchy can only see their power threatened, and the violence of their reactions creates the tension and the drama of the novel.
It is not an easy book to read, but it is satisfying and strong. I start with warnings because, to be honest, I reached the end and knew I had missed some of the subtleties. Lucky, the author has taken pity on people like me, and has created a page on her website to help us understand. Do not visit this page unless you really need it, and most importantly, only after you finish the book.
The Passion of Dolssa is marketed as a crossover novel. It certainly shouldn’t be confined to young adults. It’s beautifully written, deals with all the big questions about faith and love, and portrays two fearless and loyal female protagonists. Highly recommended for all readers.
Reviewed by Trisha Buckley