Review of Lent: A Novel of Many Returns by Jo Walton
Lent: A Novel of Many Returns
by Jo Walton
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
If there is one thing I can say about Jo Walton, it’s probably that her novels never fail to surprise me in various ways. Some of her novels I have loved—years later and I still can’t stop thinking about My Real Children, whereas others I only tolerated or didn’t quite enjoy. The more I read of Walton’s work, the clearer it is she has certain motifs she likes to return to time and again—ideas of parallel universes, timelines, time loops, and altered realities—but she also enjoys cloaking these tropes in different literary and historical frameworks. So while sometimes she is writing about alternative British history, she might equally be writing about a real historical monk at the end of the fifteenth century in Florence.
Here is my very brief spoiler-free review: if you like books that combine medievalist and Renaissance philosophy, particularly humanism, with supernatural and religious allegory, this book is going to push all the right buttons for you.
I really want to talk about Lent in its entirety, so I’m going to spoil the book for you. There is a pretty big twist after the first third of the book. If you think you might want to read Lent and don’t want that twist spoiled, stop reading my review for now. I didn’t know the twist and greatly enjoyed its revelation!
Still with me? Ok, here we go!
Girolamo Savonarola is a Dominican brother—First Brother, in fact—at San Marco in Florence. When the novel starts in 1492, he attends the deathbed of Lorenzo de Medici and thereafter begins jockeying for more political power while making prophetic proclamations that occasionally even come true. This angers the corrupt Pope Alexander, a Borgia and a Spaniard and not at all enamoured with Girolamo’s style. So he persecutes Girolamo, excommunicating him, all while Girolamo does his best to turn Florence into a holy city. Oh, and—this is important—Girolamo can see and banish demons, which are literal creatures from Hell. After he is hanged and burned for heresy, Girolamo wakes up in Hell to the crushing realization that he is a demon, a fallen angel. Soon after he is pulled into another iteration of his life as Girolamo, only this time a strange stone awakens his demonic memories of all his past iterations while he is still on Earth. From there on out, Lent becomes a series of time loopy lives as Girolamo tries to figure out how to escape from Hell, as well as from Hell on Earth.
The idea of needing multiple iterations of one’s lifetime to earn redemption is not new, of course. Most famously Groundhog Day did it, and more recently The Good Place explored this idea. The latter explores the idea of what it means to be a good person through many facets of moral philosophy. Here, Walton takes a more spiritual track. Much of Lent reminds me of Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose. Walton weaves a framework of Christian theology that underpins Girolamo’s choices and experiences throughout his lifetimes.
The first life of Girolamo’s that we experience (we don’t know how many lifetimes he has led) is special for both the reader and Girolamo because of our shared ignorance of his nature. Indeed, when I was only a third of the way through the book and Girolamo’s death was imminent, I remarked to a friend, “Something is going on” because I knew how much more book there was—and I suspected Walton of being up to her usual tricks. Sure enough, that moment where Girolamo wakes up in Hell is mind-blowing, the type of twist that utterly alters the trajectory of the whole novel. His return to Earth and subsequent awakening launch him on several lifetimes of experimentation. Each death lands him back in Hell, however, no matter how good he tries to live his life, how he tries to use the stone, etc. Girolamo’s frustration and despondency over not knowing how he can prove himself good enough for God’s love becomes palpable.
It is tempting to dismiss the ultimate resolution to Girolamo’s eternal cycle as trite and underwhelming. All he had to do was give the stone to Crookback after all? And suddenly he’s in heaven? That was definitely my initial reaction. Yet as I sat with Lent on my mind for a couple of days, the beautiful simplicity of the act unfolded before me. The most touching acts in this book are the moments where Girolamo does something selfless and compassionate for another person even though it doesn’t benefit him or his cause. When Girolamo gives the green stone to Crookback—when two demons cooperate, which is possible only on Earth because such communication is literally impossible in Hell—he has no guarantee that Crookback will actually help him. After several lifetimes of believing God must have granted him the stone for a reason, that he therefore must be the one to use it rather than Crookback, Girolamo surrenders up the idea that he can save himself and instead has to trust his demonic brother. That’s pretty powerful on several levels.
Lent took me a while to read, far longer than a novel of this size would—especially reading most of it over a holiday break. Partly that’s because I got caught up in knitting and coding as well. But it’s also because this is a book that subtly asks you to think about big ideas of spirituality and morality. Walton’s choice of time and place and main character locate the book at these intersections: Savonarola the historical figure was greatly interested in creating a purer, more moral society; he believed that was the role God meant him to play. This happened during a time of intense corruption within the Catholic Church, belying the idea that clerics were the closest people to God. This paradox is central to the novel, for Girolamo himself is a demon seeking redemption, doomed to relive the life of a priest who will be tortured and burned for heresy, even though his heresy is mostly just defying the corruption of the Church … it’s just so wonderfully twisted, and somehow Walton perceived the potential that Savonarola’s life had for this type of story and then told it, which is truly the remarkable accomplishment here.
So I think, on balance, Lent goes into the “yeah, this was a good one” pile of Walton novels I have read. Big on ideas and excellent in execution, it’s a great example of an author telling a story small enough in scope to feel human while large enough in scope to have room for the reader to fill in one’s own interpretations. I’m quite happy I finally got around to reading this one.