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Canticle by Liz McSkeane

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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I did not ask for this commission, I do not want it and yet, here I am. I still do not understand what has persuaded me or whether, having agreed to carry it out, I have committed an act of wisdom or folly.’ – Fray Martín de Sepúlveda, Canticle

Canticle by Liz McSkeane is a story based on the life and turbulent times of one of the greatest of all Spanish writers, the 16th century poet and mystic, San Juan de la Cruz ( St. John of the Cross). Published by Turas Press in 2018, Canticle is described as ‘a vivid recreation of a 400-year-old tale of power struggles, political manoeuvring and misinformation’.

Canticle or “Cántico Espiritual” is part of a collection of work from this renowned Spanish writer, poet and friar, a man who was exposed to barbaric treatment and imprisoned for his thoughts and beliefs.

400 years ago the Catholic community were in flux. It was the time of the Renaissance in Spain and the work of the Inquisition was feared and whispered about across the land. The work of San Juan de la Cruz was under suspicion as his poetry and words were not in line with the true beliefs and manners of the hierarchy at the time. San Juan de la Cruz died in 1591 and was beatified in 1675 but the proceedings for this beatification were initialised around 1616 and this is where the story of Liz McSkeane’s Canticle begins.

Fray Martín de Sepúlveda is a Domican friar who has fallen from grace falling an incident at the University he taught in. He has always claimed his innocence but with the powers that be thinking otherwise, he is frustrated and basically unemployed. An opportunity comes knocking at his door when he is offered a very clandestine commission, one that, if successful, could see him reinstated in his Professorship at his old University of Salamanca. With the Church looking at the possible beatification of San Juan de la Cruz, Fray Martín de Sepúlveda is being sought out to research the background of this mystical man and his work. The Carmelite order was in disarray during the life of San Juan de la Cruz, with reforms that were unfavourable to many. The writer’s friendship with Teresa of Avila raised many questions and with his work the subject of many an investigation, Fray Martín is to provide conclusive evidence of his morals and beliefs, but under strict guidance and instruction.

Fray Martín is not one to stick by the rules and in his search for the truth he makes some very unexpected discoveries. As he travels across Spain, he unearths fascinating facts about this now iconic writer and has to make decisions that will impact a much larger community. As the Inquisition start to query his reports, Fray Martín faces his greatest challenge and questions his own beliefs and faith.

Canticle is a labour of love for Liz McSkeane. The level of historical detail is phenomenal and the hours of research are very evident within the pages.

‘I developed a fascination with San Juan’s life and work when I read him as a student of French and Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, way back in the mists of time…so researching and writing this novel really was a labour of love. I hope people who read “Canticle” will become as intrigued by this strange and wonderful person, and his poetry, as I am myself.’
– Liz McSkeane

I love history but I must admit I knew absolutely nothing about the reform of the Carmelite Order and the whole concept of a Discalced order. I am Catholic so yes I have experienced the cloistered convent but this history of the reform and the resistance to change was all very new and fascinating to me.

Fray Martín de Sepúlveda is a wonderful character, reminding me of CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake. His determination to uncover the truth, his strong principles, his unshakable morals, his cynicism and his overall personality make him the perfect detective for the time.

Now I have to mention the cover of the book which features the work of Jordi Forniés, international visual artist and music composer, whose collections are exhibited regularly in his homeland of Spain. His work is also exhibited in Ireland, where he is represented by the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin.

Canticle is an award-winning novel, taking the top prize in the 2016 Irish Writers Centre/Greenbean Novel Fair. It is an intelligent and engrossing read about a very fascinating period of history. Liz McSkeane has created a superb character in Fray Martín and I do hope that he continues his detective work in a future novel. Canticle is one of those novels that really does deserve wider recognition. It is most certainly an educational read but with a very intriguing mystery at it’s core.

The manuscripts of San Juan de la Cruz however still remain lost, or perhaps even destroyed, but in the words of Fray Martín de Sepúlveda:

‘No matter what we do, the words and the spirit of Fray Juan will echo down the centuries….’

And they do, with his writing now ‘as well-known in Spain as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world….in fact, he was a near-contemporary of Shakespeare.’

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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