I think, perhaps, that I might have given a wrong impression of myself in these writings. Yes, I am a nerd in so many ways, and I am a pretty serious person (although I have a mighty free laugh for someone who is so serious), but I really don’t work or think lofty thoughts every minute of the day. Well, at least I try not to view everything with a deeply philosophical eye.
One of my favorite guilty pleasures is realized most often when I’m travelling. And that pleasure is — reading mystery novels. Before I go any further, I should be specific, because I don’t read just ANY mystery novels — no modern day whodunits set in Washington, D.C., with the world hanging by a thread, no hardboiled New York detectives trying to solve the latest murder. No, I like to read mysteries set in the locale of my travel destinition (I know, does the word NERD come to your lips?). So, in Italy, I read the works of Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin and Ian Pears; in Germany, the great Nazi-era mysteries of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst ,and the Victorian-era novels of Laurie R. King, Carole Nelson Douglas and Anne Perry, when travelling to England or, well, if I just can’t find a mystery that matches my destination.
So, imagine my delight, as we prepared for our trip to Istanbul, when I discovered Anne Perry’s book, The Sheen on the Silk — it had everything, an historical setting, a foundation in the place I was visiting, and a female protaganist. I had armed myself with Turkish literature for the trip (of which there is a great selection that I have not read), but I must confess that my reading preferences generally run to the non-fiction side of the library, so I wasn’t convinced that these selections would keep me content while far from home. And then I found The Sheen on the Silk.
Anne Perry’s wonderful work of historical fiction had everything I seek in a travel companion– amazing, well-drawn characters, a central female character flaunting the male authority of her day, wonderful descriptions that evoke the real essence of the place, a setting that makes the history of the place pulse and live (not always necessary, but an excellent plus). What I didn’t expect from the book, and what I had never experienced in Ms. Perry’s writing before, was a book that truly evoked the quickening of faith and spirit and the sense of mystery that I felt during my own visit to the place.
The story is that of a woman named Anna, set in the mid-13th century in Constantinople (the former name of Istanbul). The times are turbulent — Constantinople was nearly destroyed by the forces of the West during the Fourth Crusade in 1204; now, in the years around 1270, the West is gathering forces again to conquer Constantinople on its march to Jerusalem. War is planned, even though there are diplomatic efforts to peacefully merge the worlds of Roman Catholocism with the Eastern world of Christianity (these efforts, are of course, not genuine).
In this center of all this political and religious turmoil, lands Anna, trained as a physician, and coming to Contantinople to find out what happened to her twin brother Justinian. And, in order to solve this mystery, she adopts the name Anastasius and presents herself as a eunuch so that she can move without much notice through all levels of society.
I don’t want to tell you too many details — it is a very finely crafted tale and worth a read if you like stories like this. But what I want to tell you is, that through her adventure of discovering the fate of her brother, as she meets with bishops and emperors and diplomats and people of all kinds, she becomes caught up in the question of the day in Constantinople — should we become one with the Roman Church or should we fight to protect our faith as we know it? Ms. Perry take’s Anna through an amazing spiritual journey as she ponders these questions and as she faces disillusionment with the leaders of the faith she has always known and surprises from people who, by all rights, should be her enemies.
I expected the well-researched, detailed historical portrayal; I expected the inventive plot with twists and turns, but I did not expect to read words such as these:
‘God doesn’t leave people,” she [Anna] said aloud. ‘We leave Him.’ Her voice was shaking.
His eyes focused on her. ‘I served the Church all my life…’ he protested.
‘I know,’ she agreed. ‘But that’s not the same thing. You created a God in your own image, one of laws and rituals, of office and observances, because that requires only outward acts. It’s simple to understand. you don’t have to feel or give of your heart. You missed the grace and the passion, the courage beyond anything we can imagine, the hope in absolute darkness, the gentleness, the laughter, and the love that has no shadow. The journey is longer and steeper than and of us can understand. But the heaven is higher, so it has to be steep and far.’
What started for me as my usual guilty pleasure ended as a reminder of all that I believe. That is kind of the way the trip itself turned out — what began as an adventure to just see something different ended as something that stirred my soul in ways that I do not yet fully understand.
Maybe a different kind of guilty pleasure? I don’t know, but certainly a blessing in disguise.