National Book Award-winner James Carroll draws parallels between the 12th and 20th centuries, exploring the deadly consequences of medieval Catholic Church doctrine that might have been thwarted by renegade monk Peter Abelard, whose now-famous relationship with the nun Heloise echoes that of the novel's protagonists, a priest and Holocaust survivor who meet in 1950s Manhattan.
In The Cloister, Mr. Carroll...has produced a sweeping, beautifully crafted book—perhaps his best yet—that draws readers into the inner sanctum of Christianity, with its shameful contradictions but also its enduring possibilities. He conveys a vital lesson about religiously inspired violence and the prospect for peace but avoids being heavy-handed, instead toggling lightly between two fraught moments in history. He weaves together a complex story of spiritual traditions and their lasting political legacies.
Carroll, as religious historian and church insider, goes into a fair amount of ecclesiastical detail about the 12th century, which will fascinate some readers and send others skimming to the end of the chapter. But he keeps the action moving along ... Carroll is at his best in the last few chapters, when he explores each of his characters’ feelings of culpability for the tragedies that they knowingly, and unknowingly, set in motion ... the challenge is how to move forward, fully conscious of the hurts they’ve inflicted, but not seeking a facile or temporary forgiveness. Here in the braiding together of the three stories, past and present, Carroll shows that for his characters, and indeed for all of us, the greatest wisdom may lie in forgiving oneself.
Mr. Carroll vividly evokes New York in midcentury ... He weaves a patchwork of disparate threads, threads unraveled from clerical vestments, that, when quilted together, spell out the single word that the book embodies ... Their [the protagonists'] awkward convergence becomes an incandescent, allegorical outgrowth of the agonizing introspection that Abélard and Héloïse undergo in their search for self-awareness.