In the French coastal abbey of Saint Marie-de-la-Mer, cut off from the mainland by all but a tidal causeway, discipline has long been lax. Most of the nuns are not turning to God but running from something, Soeur Auguste more than most. As Juliette she was a gypsy who spent her life in travelling carnivals, falling in with the band led by the man she knew as Guy LeMerle. Styled the Blackbird, playwright, cardsharp, and master manipulator, he didn’t hesitate to cast the rest of the troupe to the wolves during a disastrous visit to Epinal. Juliette escaped and, posing as a wealthy widow, entered the convent where she has spent five years with her herb garden, her Tarot cards, and her daughter Fleur.
Then the Abbess dies, and the outside world suddenly begins to take notice of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer. The new Abbess is a powerful bishop’s 11-year-old niece, and Mère Isabelle is determined to prove herself by correcting all the lapses of her predecessor. To help the enforcement of discipline, she has brought her own confessor - a man Juliette knows very well indeed. The Blackbird has returned to her life, bringing with him a complex web of schemes and trickery and hidden purposes. And if he can reclaim Juliette in the process, then so much the better ...
But Juliette has plans of her own. She has come to care for the other sisters, and is determined not to let LeMerle harm them, or manipulate her more than she can avoid. And this time when she escapes him, it will be for good.
Juliette reminded me of Vianne in Chocolat, lacking conventional religion, working her own little magic with cantrips and charms, and with herbs instead of chocolate. And like Vianne she is a wanderer, though Juliette settled down for the sake of her daughter. I found her past as a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century travelling player and aerialist intriguing, and while her reminiscences cast a romantic light over taking to the road the harsh realities such as poverty and hostile townsfolk are not glossed over. Such an unconventional background is what allowed her to develop the independence and strength of purpose that I so much admired in her.
The other nuns mentioned in the book were vividly sketched, though Juliette’s fellow travellers didn’t come so clearly to life. But the most fascinating character was Guy LeMerle. Even when the reader is allowed inside his head, they learn only that he is blurring the truth, never what the truth actually is. He never gives up his self-serving ways, nor his habit of playing the puppet-master with the actions of others; yet in spite of this, and his horrific plans for Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, he remains somehow sympathetic. Enough of the truth is revealed to humanise him, and while I can’t really say that I liked him, I did begin to understand him.