Joanne Harris' Holy Fools is, at first, much like its heroine: guarded, mysterious and hard to understand. But the novel, set in France of the 1600s, eventually builds an intriguing, if still mysterious, tale. The protagonist, Juliette, is a young mother hiding out with her daughter at an abbey, where she has taken the name Soeur Auguste and assumed the identity of a young widow. The truth is, she has fled a previous life as a tightrope walker with a performance troupe. She has also left her mentor and former lover, who betrayed her and her friends.
When the Reverend Mother at the abbey dies, she is replaced with a preteen girl whose mentor turns out to be none other than LeMerle, the very man who betrayed Juliette years before. Like Juliette, he has assumed the identity of a holy person, but it's immediately clear that his motives for coming to the abbey have little to do with faith. It becomes more apparent as odd things start happening at the abbey, leadng to rumors of demonic posession and witchcraft. But Juliette knows that her old lover -- not dark powers
-- is the source of these occurrences, and must figure out what he is planning and why before it is too late.
Harris switches viewpoints throughout the book between Juliette and LeMerle as the two embark on a game of cat and mouse. LeMerle clearly is up to something, and Juliette has to figure out what it is, even as he tries to thwart her at every turn.
Though the subject matter makes Holy Fools
difficult to penetrate at first, the relationship between Juliette and LeMerle makes it work. They are both clever, complicated characters and, despite the fact that LeMerle initially seems to have all the power, they are equally matched. Though they are enemies, they seem bound by a mutual respect, and perhaps even love, that keeps the struggle between them fascinating right up until the end. Harris also creates a vivid gallery of supporting characters, from the other members of Juliette and LeMerle's theater troupe to the gullible and vulnerable sisters at the abbey. Harris' tale is somewhat difficult, but for those willing to stick with it, the relationship between its two main characters is ample reward.