Penguin Random House, $38.00,
Heloise is Mandy Hager’s reconstruction in novelistic terms of the lives of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, told from Heloise’s point of view. While both Abelard and Heloise read a great deal, neither of them had ever read a novel. They had, no doubt, read Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography as distant in time from the 12th century as the 12th century is from our own. But Augustine saw no point in the concrete realisation of experience that characterises most novels. Unlike Hager, he does not mention things like the off-putting “flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores” of the convent dormitory, or the impression made on him by “streams of fish gut and animal entrails that [ran] down to meet the river”, or where the privy was. His subject was his psyche as a model for the reader’s. Being an African, he might have been black, but his skin colour remains a mystery. And yet, Hager, whose novel is rich in evocations of earthy reality, is not genuinely concerned with “the medieval body” (although the subject is currently being done to death by academics). Indeed, she has followed in the steps of Augustine (in this respect, at least, as so many great novelists have done) by focusing on the trajectory of her subject’s inner life. Paradoxically, while she has sought to establish authenticity by appealing to our senses, the effect here is decorative. What is truly authentic about her novel is quite different. Hager has, impressively, studied a wealth of primary and secondary texts in order to reconstruct Heloise’s mental and emotional development.
___________________________________________________________________This content is restricted to subscribers.
If you are an existing subscriber, please login. If you would like to subscribe to NZ Books: A Quarterly Review, find out more here.