‘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
[ About the Book ]
Fray Juan de la Cruz – renowned poet, mystic and with his friend Teresa of Avila, co-founder of the Discalced Carmelite Order – has been dead for twenty-five years.
Fray Martín de Sepúlveda, Dominican friar and former professor at the University of Salamanca is living in obscurity, fortunate to escape the attentions of the Inquisition after a scandal that cost him his job. Now, three years later, he is summoned to Madrid where he receives an unexpected, and highly secret, commission: to investigate the life and work of the long-dead Fray Juan.
When an official from the Inquisition takes an interest in the case, Fray Martín realises that the stakes are higher than he thought possible – and that his own fate hangs in the balance.
As Fray Martín grapples with his investigation into the poet’s life and work, he becomes embroiled in a quest to separate fact from fiction, reality from propaganda. He soon learns, like Fray Juan before him that when truth is manipulated to serve the interests of a powerful elite, defiance comes at a high price.
[ My Review ]
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.’ Liz McSkeane sent me a copy in return for my honest review, so what did I think of Canticle?
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.’
[ Bio ]
Liz McSkeane is an award-winning poet, short story writer and novelist. She was born in Scotland and has lived in Ireland since 1981, and so considers herself both Scottish and Irish. Liz studied languages – French and Hispanic Studies – at Glasgow University and for several years worked as a teacher. For the last two decades she has been an education consultant and social science researcher.
She has also written poetry and short stories for most of her life and in 1999 won the the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune New Irish Writer of the Year Award and the Poetry Award. She has published three collections of poetry: “So Long, Calypso,” (Turas Press, 2017), “Snow at the Opera House” (New Island, 2002) “In Flight” (Lapwing, 1996) and her poems and short stories have been widely published in Ireland and the UK, in many publications including Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times, The Shop, The Irish Pages, The Stinging Fly, Orbis, the Gutter, Stepaway, Flare and others.
Liz’s first novel, “Canticle,” a historical detective novel set in Renaissance Spain and based on the life of the Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross, was launched in Dublin on May 15th 2018.
Twitter – @EMcSkeane
Website – https://www.elizabethmcskeane.com/