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book review

Walton is well-known in sci-fi and fantasy circles, her book Among Others being among an elite group of novels to have won the Hugo, Nebula and British Fantasy awards.Handout

  • Title: Lent
  • Author: Jo Walton
  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • Pages: 384

Are there enough books about people stuck living lives over and over to call it a genre yet? Iterative literature? The list, so far, includes Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt and now Jo Walton’s Lent. The concept has also been well-represented on screen in TV shows such as Russian Doll and movies such as Groundhog Day (based on Richard Lupoff’s short story) and Edge of Tomorrow. Whether dramas or comedies, what seems to fuel these stories is a certain collective anxiety about free will.

Familiar as the trope may be, Walton has taken it, in Lent, to places it hasn’t been before. Renaissance Florence, for one. Oh, and Hell. The Welsh-Canadian author is well-known in sci-fi and fantasy circles, her book Among Others being among an elite group of novels to have won the Hugo, Nebula and British Fantasy awards. Several of her other 12 novels and three poetry collections have received laurels as well.

Lent may be the book that brings Walton to an even wider readership, crossing, as it does, the proverbial Arno into literary fiction territory, where it should appeal to readers of Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Marcel Theroux and Margaret Atwood.

The novel’s main character is Girolamo Savonarola, the real-life corruption-fighting Dominican monk who made Florence a democratic republic after the Medici family’s ouster from power in 1494. After he was hanged and burned, Savonarola developed a cult following; some considered him just a martyr, others a saint.

In Lent, Girolamo (as he’s called in the novel) is a prophet with a direct line to God. He can also see demons, and the book opens with a highly memorable scene of a convent infested with them, Walton describing their “mocking laughter” and grotesque physical appearances – which involve various combinations of beaks, wings and “all-too human genitals” – with gusto. Then comes Girolamo, like a Renaissance ghostbuster, to banish them all back to Hell, which he does by making a circular portal with his fingers. It’d be a great party trick save for the fact that almost nobody else can see the demons. (One of the few that can is Isabella, mistress of Girolamo’s friend, the (real) count and scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.)

Lent’s long first section tells Girolamo’s life story straightforwardly, in the manner of much well-written historical fiction. We witness Girolamo’s gradual, unimpeachable rise: He refuses bribes and ecclesiastical promotion, resists temptation, helps avert a French invasion. He guides others to God and organizes the famous bonfire of the vanities, all of which make Florence a better, more morally upright place. That untaintedness also gains him some powerful enemies, including Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, and Pope Alexander VI (one of the murderous Borgias), who view him as a threat to their power.

It therefore comes as a bit of a shock when, after his execution, Girolamo falls, “not forward on his face like good people but on his back, like the damned.” Girolamo, it turns out, is a demon. Takes one to know one, I guess.

His dastardly true identity established, Girolamo begins to relive his life again and again, though, having free will, he’s not condemned to repeat the same actions. Nor does he revel in his demon-ness – quite the opposite. He hopes, in fact, that he can “harrow Hell” with the help of a green stone with mysterious powers discovered in a volume of Pliny. (Hell is painful, but not as painful as no longer having God’s ear, or having his prayers heard.) And so, like the saddest chef in Italy, Girolamo proceeds to tweak his life’s recipe, noting what seems to be a random butterfly effect along the way: small changes can have amplified effects, but big ones sometimes seem to have little impact.

Lent’s prose is what’s commonly called “unadorned,” but it’s never dull, thanks in part to Walton’s intelligent, gentle humour. One of the most relatable things about Girolamo is his exhaustion at the idea of having to reconfide his true identity to select allies during each of his various iterations. (Can you imagine?) The time loops’ plus side is that his prophesies get more impressively precise, which makes him more credible to others. Historic characters – kings, popes, nobles – flit in and out of the narrative. At one point, desperate to try something new, Girolamo ends up aboard the Santa Maria with Columbus. It’s an clever, original romp that will doubtlessly have readers running to the history books, or Walton’s website, to find out what really happened – and what didn’t.

– Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries

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