This modern novel is set in contemporary Malta where Maggie, an Australian woman with Maltese roots, finds herself in Lija unexpectedly and occupies herself piecing together a story from the past from a hidden archive of dusty documents while her own life makes a significant turn.
From the traffic and turmoil of today’s Malta, the reader accompanies Maggie back into the past, uncovering the families and fears, horizons and hopes of of a handful of women who lived and worked on the island in the sixteenth century, grandmother, daughter and granddaughter.
Maggie’s rich imagination fleshes out the story of these women in a patriarchal society where knights roam and husbands hoe the land or head off to the high sea. From Valletta in the grip of the inquisitor to the constraints of a rural society, we see life lived: illicit liaisons and true love, slavery and superstition, religious fervour, fear and fortune.
The characters are bound together within and across centuries by a near-mystical genetic pull, and, despite living in very different eras, there are parallels between the women who trod these streets four hundred years ago, and Maggie who also finds she has choices to make and discoveries about her roots with which to come to terms.
Although topping 500 pages, Love in the Time of the Inquisition, is not a weighty read, and the story skips along at pace, infused by the flavours of Malta, hot, sultry and contradictory. The land is both busy and remote, scorched or sun-kissed, and blessed by blue sea that delights those hanging over Valletta’s harbour walls yet threatens those who travel its waves with the prospect they may never return.
Drofenik skilfully weaves the eras and connections between characters into a seamless whole, tying in not only the harsh realities of life on the land, but an appreciation too of the finer way of life also typical of the period, with laboriously embroidered gowns and cutting edge painting as contemporaneous new thoughts in science, philosophy, literature and art from Italy burgeoned across Europe in the Early Modern Period. Caravaggio, painting his famous work The Beheading of St John the Baptist which still hangs today in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, even makes an appearance in the story, and leaves behind his own legacy between the pages.
The cast of the story also includes Vittorio Cassar, a Maltese Knight within the Order of St John who embraced this new knowledge – he was an architect and military engineer, often credited with designing some of the archipelago’s watch towers and overseeing the rebuilding Gozo’s citadel in the early years of the seventeenth century.
And back in the twenty first century, whilst I was sorry to reach the last page and leave this imaginative excursion into Maltese territory, Maggie has her own renaissance as her unexpectedly happy future stretches ahead of her, resplendent with echoes of the past, a future about which I think her forebears would applaud.
Thank you, Lou Drofenik, for a thoughtful and captivating read.