This is a big book. Not big in size at a reasonable 381 pages, but big in scope and ideas. It’s a book that you want to take time and care with, so that you can appreciate it as it deserves.
Lots of people may know the names of Heloise and Abelard, even if like me, they don’t really know the details. Abelard was widely celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century; Heloise was among the most lauded of his students, made more notable because of her gender in a time when women were most definitely meant to be barely seen and certainly not heard.
Mandy Hager tells the story from Heloise’s perspective, filling in the historical gaps with seamless narrative. She starts with Heloise’s childhood, about which next to nothing is known, and traces her life through to her teenage years and adulthood, and her fateful meeting with Peter Abelard. The story is well paced and rich, with excerpts from Abelard and Heloise’s own writing, and many references to other great thinkers including Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle and Socrates. With a lot of the story taking place within a religious setting, Sts Augustine and Jerome also get regular look-ins. The content is quite dense – not in a negative way, but in the way that a lets you know you’re reading a book that’s been really well thought-through, researched and edited.
A reader with modern sensibilities will rage against the unfairness with which Heloise is treated, where even Abelard, who professes to love and respect her, treats her as a chattel without feelings and ambition of her own. Abelard eventually comes across as a fairly unsympathetic character, even though Heloise’s love and forgiveness of his behaviour wins out time and again. I found myself snarling at some of the male characters in the story quite regularly … the perils of being a modern reader of historical fiction, I suppose!
Heloise reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, dealing in depth as it does with a historical figure who has name recognition, even if the reader doesn’t know much more. It’s substantial in the same way, and immerses you in a world that may be 800 years gone, but still echoes now in the 21st century. It’s not a light holiday read, but perfect for when you have time and space to read something substantial. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin NZ