by Jo Walton
Review by Katherine Grimm Bowers
Girolamo Savonarola, martyr or heretic, burns. As Jo Walton writes of her real-life Dominican friar protagonist, “He has always burned, as long as he can remember.” Ambition dogs his steps, seeps into his faith: “He burned then for more purity, more severity, more preaching, more rigor. He burned always with a desire to be closer to God.” And fire, burning, characterized the historical Girolamo’s life, from the reformer zeal that led to the bonfire of the vanities to a disastrous trial by fire, and ultimately to his excommunication and execution by hanging and fire. As the Dominican-friar-led bluegrass band the Hillbilly Thomists sings,
I’m a dog with a torch in my mouth for my Lord
Making noise while I got time
Spreading fire while I got earth
How you wish it was already lit.
Give me your fire, I’ll do your work.
There’s that fire of zeal again. That’s how things ended up so incendiary for historical Girolamo Savonarola—the “spectacular rise and fall of a man of God.”
The beginning half of Lent reads as more or less straight historical fiction—that is, if your understanding of history allows for the literal presence of demons rustling around the edges of Renaissance Florence. It can be slow going sometimes for someone with a shaky grasp on fifteenth-century European politics, keeping track of all the Italian names—despite Walton noting in her acknowledgements that she worked hard to simplify the major players. But nearly halfway through, the story veers from its previous path with a twist easy for the Catholic reader to anticipate, but nonetheless bold.
Because Girolamo, after that gruesome execution, is going to get another chance. The mechanics, of course, are suspect, theologically. After all, is a Groundhog Day scenario tenable in a Christian worldview? Walton casually tosses out various precedents. There’s talk of metempsychosis, the concept of the soul transmigrating after death, and once or twice mention of the contested possibility that St. Gregory of Nyssa may have espoused apocatastasis, the idea that God’s mercy ensures all shall be saved, eventually. They’re shaky justifications, and Walton doesn’t waste much time on them. But as the premise of speculative fiction, the conceit of iterative lives proves mesmerizing. It asks the Catholic reader important questions: How would your faith, your life, change with the possibility of a do-over? What would your life lack if you were barred from prayer? Would you still love God even without hope of salvation?
In lecturing one of his brothers early on, Girolamo observes,
“God allows us free will, and allows the demons to work in the world. We have to make an active choice to seek God and what is good, and we have to repeat that choice over and over. If the temptations weren’t actually tempting, it wouldn’t be much of a choice, would it? The vanities of the world are empty, we know that, but we also know how hard it is to fast when a feast is spread before us. God put Adam in a garden where everything was fitting and there was only a single wrong choice, and still he was tempted and fell. Since then, we have lived in a world where we are surrounded by temptations and there are more wrong choices than right. But we can still win through to God, through his own grace and sacrifice.”
In Lent, Girolamo gets the opportunity to repeat that choice to seek God over and over. Walton avoids getting bogged down in the details of how these iterations work. She neatly sidesteps the question of what becomes of the nuanced, shifting characters surrounding Girolamo in his many iterations—is their salvation somehow based on their holiest life? Or are they merely variables to be manipulated in Girolamo’s quest for heaven? In one characteristic set of quips, Pico della Mirandola marvels, “‘How does that work?’ the Count asks, leaning forward, fascinated. ‘Is—’” to which Lorenzo de Medici snaps, “‘There will be time for all that. . . . Years after I am dead when you can talk about the metaphysics.’” This dialogue is characteristic for the book, which is much more interested in people than in disciplined metaphysical thought experiments.
Instead, Walton concentrates her considerable powers on fleshing out a multifaceted protagonist and supporting cast. Since at least Milton’s Adam, Christian writers have struggled with creating sympathetic, holy characters that don’t read as dull or priggish. In this, Walton succeeds marvelously. Giroloma Savonarola, First Brother of the Monastery of San Marco in Florence, is a dog of God—and his loyalty will shine over his many lifetimes. Though he grapples with sin, especially pride and occasionally despair, he is in no way an anti-hero, resisting that common fixture of much contemporary fiction. Though sometimes misguided, he acts from love of God and his adopted city.
The season of Lent, which “always feels like the longest season of the church’s year,” becomes both the setting and atmosphere for this novel, a time of seeking holiness, acknowledging weakness, endeavoring, failing, and trying again. It’s a rich setting, peopled by real historical figures, dazzling architecture, and world-renowned art, and Girolamo is at the center of it. He recognizes that “part of loving perishable things here on Earth is so we can learn to love what we will find in Heaven,” and Walton depicts a lovely and lovable Florence, a vivid and heartbreaking world. Girolamo, near his story’s end, reflects, “The Senatorial Palace is unbearably beautiful. All of Florence is, this whole world God made for humanity. He can breathe and eat and look at beautiful things,” and by this point the reader can envision Florence with Girolamo’s own wonder and affection. In Lent, Earth itself becomes a sort of training ground where Girolamo hashes out God’s will and learns to love rightly.
The idea of God’s generosity toward humanity informs and infuses the novel with wonder. The mixed nature of humanity and its blessed ability to repent is noted throughout:
“[Girolamo] thinks how different this army is from the demonic army that had been besieging Florence. There is laughter around the campfires here, but it is not all mocking. Voices are raised in song. A knot of men are gambling with dice, but as he watches he sees the winner, a man missing his two front teeth, divide his takings with the loser and clap him on the back. These are soldiers, not saints, but they are honest human men, mixed good with bad, all of them with souls that can choose the good and come to God. The demons are lost to all hope, reduced to mockery and hate. These men have done terrible things, destroyed towns, killed, raped, looted. But they can repent, can still choose to be kind to one another.”
Lent, then, in its admiration of Florentine life and culture, does not shy away from the Renaissance’s corruption, murderous politics, and other vices, depicting historical figures each wrestling with their own demons—no pun intended. The book manages to function as a sort of a dual thought experiment, in which non-Christians can suspend their disbelief, finding themselves immersed in a world populated by saints and demons, while orthodox Christians can benefit from meditating more vividly on our known reality, in which the incredible gift of repentance should not be accepted casually. In Lent, people are poisoned and people burn. People repent, or don’t. Like us all, “Girolamo wants lines as straight and clean as a birch sapling, where human motives turn out to be as tangled as a bramble thicket.”
While some reviewers argue that the conclusion feels rushed, in fact the denoument is tidy and compact, avoiding descending into the sort of theological nitpicking Lent has elsewhere avoided. It is ultimately not a book of what-ifs, of theological haggling, but an exploration of God’s patient love, working over many lives in the heart of one of his creatures. Despite intense suffering, the worst sins humanity can dream up, we “can repent, can still choose to be kind to one another.” It’s a lesson worth remembering, in Lent or anytime.