With very few exceptions, I have always been suspect of novels published during the last 30 years or so. Poor Banished Children by British novelist Fiorella De Maria is one of the exceptions.
The novel is engaging, compelling and beautifully written. Set in 17th-century Europe and North Africa, a savage and terrifying time and place of Barbary pirates, slavery and widespread murder, Poor Banished Children is the story of Warda, an afflicted soul singularly in search of authentic love.
As an innocent girl compelled by love, Warda wraps herself next to her dead father’s body as he lies in state, an act appalling to the superstitious beliefs of the day.
Shunned by her family, Warda is left to rely only upon herself for everything except the very barest of necessities. Father Antonin, a kind Catholic priest and physician, befriends Warda, nurturing and loving her as his own child. In him, Warda begins to understand the nature of love. When she is captured by pirates and sent throughout the Mediterranean and beyond as a slave, it is her memory of Father Antonin that prevents her from complete despair.
Poor Banished Children is the story of Warda’s soul, as revealed in her final confession, which is woven throughout the novel — a confession that tells the story of every struggle and fight Warda puts up in order to recognize, understand and finally rest in the power of suffering and redemption. It’s a confession somewhat tenuously given, but one that, as with all good confessions, proves to heal even the deepest wounds.
As Warda thinks to herself: “It is like hanging helplessly at the brink of a fall, with a man I do not know promising to catch me if I let go. ‘I swear before Almighty God that this is a true account of my life. May I forget nothing; may I withhold nothing and come at last to peace.’”
Combining a firm grasp on the craft of storytelling with a truly Catholic sensibility, De Maria gives us a novel that both entertains the senses and provokes the mind. The story is set largely on Malta, North Africa and at sea, and De Maria beautifully describes lands that are as savage and beautiful as the people who occupy them. Her characters are vivid and complex, allowing for an honest examination of human nature, with all its flaws and propensities. But, at the same time, it shows our God-given capability to love as Christ loved us: through sacrifice.
While De Maria does not quite plumb the depths of the soul, she does a far better job here than many well-meaning secular writers who fall short in their analysis of human nature. I attribute this to De Maria’s obvious talent and insight — and to her steadfast grounding in the Catholic faith.
Indeed, Poor Banished Children is a novel that shows us our Catholic faith: penetrating, cathartic, true.
Register correspondent Joy Wambeke writes from Marshall, Minnesota.
POOR BANISHED CHILDREN
By Fiorella De Maria
299 pages, $19.95
To order: ignatius.com