Review: La Nuit des béguines by Aline Kiner
WARNING: THERE ARE NO TRANSLATIONS OF THIS BOOK AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH.
This book takes place in the early fourteenth century, and covers the story of four young béguines - women who, until the late fourteenth century, were allowed a certain leeway of freedom under royal protection in France (the last of the Capetians; this book has a lot of temporal overlap with my favorite series of all time, Maurice Druon's Les Rois maudits). They were not 'women of the world' but neither were they nuns; they all lived together in a community where they were allowed to study, pray and rest kind of at their own pace. And then, surprise surprise, things all start going rather pear-shaped.
This book was a bit patchy - the writing was lovely; the story and the characterizations were a bit uneven and a bit flat. The main thrust of the story is that a young girl (Maheut the Redhead) runs away from a brutal marriage and hides with the béguines; a Franciscan friar tracks her down; and agrees not to bring her back to her family if another béguine, Ade, translates a forbidden, mystical manuscript into Latin for the friar (Humbert). The viewpoints flip back and forth between Ysabel, the béguinage's healer; Ade, who teaches Latin to the young women sent to the béguinage for their schooling; Agnès, Ysabel's unwilling apprentice; Maheut; and a young woman who's got some kind of romantic feelings for Ade, Clémence, and who ends up becoming real salty when Ade doesn't return her affection, but it's all a bit murky there.
The story moves in starts and stops - the lead-up and the climb-down from climactic moments are long, drawn out, detailed and well-explored; but the climaxes themselves are rushed through or happen mainly off the page. That meant that there was never really a proper moment where you can get into the story, or really get gripped by it; and the fact that the incipient action, the execution of the béguine who wrote the manuscript, is also the first action of the novel means that everything coming after it felt a bit anti-climactic. And the politics, between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, using the béguines as cards to play against each other, felt like a bit of a tacked-on sidepiece to the main action, and never felt anything more than inexplicable and clunky. As did the forbidden love story between Ade and Humbert - drawn together by their fascination for this forbidden manuscript, and the fact that this love story is what prompted Clémence's jealousy to sell her out to Agnès, which then led to Humbert's turning himself in; it was all a bit confusing and we had spent more time throughout the book with the philosophical musings of the béguinage rather than the plot, so the threads all got a bit tangled.
Also, I was slightly annoyed by the fact that Maheut the Redhead's arrival and pregnancy was made out to be such a big thing, and the fact that she was being tracked down by Humbert was the main threat of the second part of the novel, and then it just... went away and was never mentioned again?
But, having said all that, the writing of this novel was absolutely lovely. The writing was a bit of archaic, dated language, which set the scene very thoroughly and accurately; I felt like I was actually in the living rooms and hospitals of the novel and watching everything unfold in front of me instead of reading about it. The fact that there were no explanations given of different terms also worked very well, as it allowed for a very immersive novel with absolutely no breaks in the fourth wall that you sometimes get with more technical historical fiction.
And the philosophical musings throughout the novel were also very well handled - Aline Kiner made her points in a subtle, meaningful way without ever having to resort to strawman arguments or obviousness.
I will just say I'm very glad I wasn't alive in 14th century Europe, as I do not think I would have done will with whole "stay silent and obey your menfolk" thing at all.