Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

A review by Nalini Haynes

The Passion of Dolssa is a Spanish version of Joan of Arc except Dolssa isn’t leading her people to war, only to God. For this, the Roman Catholic Church wants to burn her alive. They burn her mother but Dolssa is mysteriously freed and runs from the pyre to wander the countryside.

Botilla and her sisters run a tavern in Bajas, a fishing village in northern Spain. She’s the village matchmaker, hoping to earn acceptance as an ‘out of towner’ in this small town. Her younger sister, Sazia, tells fortunes and their older sister, Plazensa, brews ale and manages their tavern with some sex work on the side.

An aging friend asks Botilla to find and bring back her nephews to inherit her estate. Sazia’s predictions bode ill but, eventually, she says the repercussions of not going are worse so Sazia and Botilla travel together with a couple of menservants to fetch the nephews.

They fetch the nephews and, on their way home, discover Dolssa. In the spirit of true Christian charity, they smuggle her home and nurse her back to health in spite of the church and a knight searching for Dolssa as a heretic.

Chapters leap between points of view; the overall structure is that of a book written by a monk based on written records and personal accounts. Although the bulk of the story is from Botille’s point of view with Dolssa running a close second, sometimes the churchmen present their points of view and, at others, chapters are written as first-person testimony given to Inquisitors.

Julie Berry has included notes at the end of the novel, explaining that Dolssa is based on the lives of a few historical women. Although writing fiction, Berry sought to capture historical truths of the culture and religions of the time while depicting the Churchmen realistically: some greedy, some fanatical, some meaning well but nearly all determined to destroy that which threatens the power of their religious order. My knowledge of history is rather limited; I’d never heard of the women on whom Berry based Dolssa, thus the historical notes are of particular interest.

The Passion of Dolssa passes the Bechdel Test: none of the sisters nor Dolssa seek a husband although Plazensa beds a few. Botille enjoys being a meddling matchmaker. They care for their drunkard father/stepfather out of duty, not love; he’s usually in the tavern loft so he’s not present when the sisters talk. The central women characters are all strong; the women with whom they have friendships are many and varied. Small town life, a sense of community, develops throughout the story without male domination. Even the persecution is depicted as institutional and religious, it is not depicted as men seeking dominion over women. (Although I couldn’t help but wonder at some of the men’s motivations.)

The Passion of Dolssa is part Joan of Arc, part Taming of the Shrew, part Emma by Jane Austen, set in Spain in the 13th century. It’s compelling reading: I feared the worst and hoped for the best even while knowing the best was unlikely. Botille and her nemesis are funny. People’s motivations and relationships are complex, shifting, changing, realistic. My only wish is that Berry finished a few chapters earlier: I don’t feel those last short chapters added to the story and, if anything, they detracted from what was a happy-ish ending. Some will disagree, citing the meaning behind that final chapter. I highly recommend The Passion of Dolssa as historical fiction and as a feminist retelling of history (while remembering that Dolssa is a fictional character based on real women).

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781460752036
ISBN 10: 1460752031
Format: paperback, 336 pages
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU

The Passion of Dolssa — a demure young woman shown in profile with the title blending into embellishments on the lower third of the page