I have to thank Julianne Douglas, who recommended Cathedral of the Sea on her blog Writing the Renaissance. Her post about the book and why it makes great historical fiction is well worth a read. Julianne compares the book to The Count of Monte Cristo; I read it as more of a Pillars of the Earth story, and I suspect if you like either you too will love this book. It is fresh, exciting and can’t-put-it-down good—all 600 pages.
In Cathedral of the Sea author Ildefonso Falcones tells the epic tale of Arnau Estanyol, the son of a serf who rises against formidable odds (even his own ambition) through the guilds and merchant class in 14th Century Barcelona to become a noble.
I was gripped from the beginning by the novel’s dramatic opening at the wedding of Arnau’s parents Bernat and Francesca and the arrival of the local Lord Lorenc de Bellera to claim his prime notte, the feudal right to bed the virgin bride before the groom. This rape dooms Bernat’s marriage before it even gets started, and although the couple has a child child—Arnau—de Bellera has not finished tormenting the Estanyol family. To escape Bernat has to rescue baby Arnau from near-death and begin life as fugitives in Barcelona, where they hope to become free men.
Falcones gives Arnau so much to overcome; at every turn in the novel the stakes are huge, which kept me up very late turning pages. Arnau encounters villains ranging from his immediate family to the nobility and the Catholic Church’s Spanish Inquisition. I cheered for Arnau—a good man who works hard, does right (most of the time) and survives trial after tribulation.
Through Arnau’s travails he is sustained by his faith in God and the Virgin Mary, who he worships in the people’s Cathedral of Santa Maria de la Mar. The statue of the Virgin in the chapel at the cathedral gives Arnau a mother figure to worship, and while there praying he meets the Bastaixo—essentially a guild of porters who also carry rocks from the quarry to the cathedral in their spare time. He eventually joins the Bastaixo in some of the most moving passages in the book.
The cathedral and Arnau’s faith are the foundations (dare I say Bastaixo) of the novel, along with rich historical detail of 14th Century Spain with which I was unfamiliar. It is refreshing to read an historical fiction novel that does not focus on the nobility, but rather on the larger populace. I appreciated Falcones’ intricate knowledge of the laws on land ownership and peasant rights, guild membership and obligations, and the division between Christian, Moorish and Jewish societies.
I don’t think it is a spoiler that Arnau ultimately survives, resolving multiple disasters including questioning by the Inquisition, but the mastery of this book is how the characters and plot twists resolve to keep you reading to the end. Is it a perfect book? No – there are some flaws, some dangling characters, but none of this bothered me. I was on an epic journey with Arnau, and it is a while since I read one I enjoyed this much.
I loved it.