Book Review: Bonfire of the Perfect by Susan Appleyard.
Bonfire of the Perfect
By Susan Appleyard
Prompted by the murder of his legate, in 1209 Pope Innocent III launches a crusade – not against the infidels of the East, but against fellow Christians living peaceably in the south of France. They are the Cathars, regarded as heretics by the Roman Church, and the sect is flourishing.
Thousands of knights, landless younger sons, mercenaries and assorted riff-raff pour south with Christian zeal to exterminate men, women and children of the same country. A dilemma soon arises: How to tell a Cathar from an orthodox Catholic?
Lovers Bräida and Jourdan are torn apart when Carcassonne falls to the crusaders. Jourdan joins the resistance while Bräida flees with her family to the relative safety of the Pyrenees, neither knowing if they will see one another again. But Bräida is not safe in her mountain retreat, because the Church has found an answer to its dilemma – the creation of the Inquisition. No one can escape its diabolical clutches.
This is a story of faith, endurance and the love of liberty in a time of unimaginable cruelty.
"Much will be written by the other side, I'm sure. The winners have a claim on history while the losers are shovelled into the ground and their stories expunged. Mine will be a story of love and war, a war that ended as the conquest of an entire province. It was an episode of manifest injustice and unparalleled cruelty that we must never forget…"
When God turns his back on his children, then the blood of the innocent would be spilt upon the street. A Holy War, that is what they were calling it. But this time it was not the infidel that would suffer, it would be the heretic.
For years they had lived alongside the Cathars, they were neighbours, friends. Yet, now the Pope was asking the congregation to forsake them, to give them up to the fire.
However, in the heat of battle how can one tell the difference between a Cathar and a Catholic?
From a young girl's dream of the future to the devastating consequences of choosing to stand with the oppressed, Bonfire of the Perfect by Susan Appleyard is a beautiful, yet powerfully emotional story of one woman's experience during the Albigensian Crusade (1209–29).
I thought this book was going to be an emotional read, and I was right! I was so glad that I had some tissues close at hand because I certainly needed them. However, this is a novel that once started was impossible to turn away from. This story, these characters, utterly mesmerised me. Bonfire of the Perfect is what Historical Fiction is all about.
Although the main protagonist is not a Cathar, this book is very much about their terrible persecution. The plight of the Cathars is not something one often finds depicted in Historical Fiction, so I was really looking forward to seeing how Appleyard would approach their beliefs and their practices. History tells us that the Cathars rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, they instead based their faith from the teachings in the Gospels. The violence in which the Catholic Church responded to the pacifist Cathars was almost without precedence — it was, to put it simply, an act of genocide. Appleyard has taken that history and shed new light on the absolute horror that the Cathars suffered at the hands of fellow Christians. The corruption of the Catholic Church and the greed of the monarchy and the aristocracy during this era is only eclipsed by their collective determination to stamp out anyone who had dared to contradict their teachings or question their authority. Their reaction by the Catholic Church must have confirmed the Cathars' belief that the evil God of the Old Testament “Satan” did indeed rule the world, for the good God of The New Testament would never have called men to their cause with the promise of wealth and land. Nor would He have sanctioned the murder of the innocent. This is the kind of novel that makes a reader stop and think, and it clearly demonstrates how power corrupts absolutely. Appleyard approaches her story with a deep understanding of the history of this period. She has depicted this terrifying world where both Cathars and, in many cases, Catholics were brutally murdered for either opposing a corrupted organisation or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Appleyard confirms very elegantly that there was nothing Holy about any of the Crusades.
Bräida was a protagonist that I really came to care about. Bräida experiences injustice — she had witnessed the cruel whispers of the Inquisition, and she has seen her fellow countrymen murdered on the orders of a Pope who knew nothing of compassion. Yet, still, she retains an inherent goodness that would not be tarnished by the war that had dominated her life. Bräida suffers so much in this book, and yet she does not let the situation break her. Bräida is a heroine because she bears the unbearable, and she never gives up but approaches life with a determination to make the very best of it. Her relationship with Jourdan and Dulcia was particularly heartrending. I thought Appleyard's depiction of Bräida was utterly sublime.
Likewise, Jourdan is a protagonist that really tugged at my heartstrings. He comes from nothing and yet he has more honour than those with title and wealth. His story is tragic. However, it is incredibly compelling. I thought Jourdan's portrayal was wonderful.
The antagonists in this story are found in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the French monarchy and the aristocracy. Their dogged determination to hold onto their power and wealth is evident throughout this novel. They did not care who they hurt and who they had to kill to acquire more wealth and more land. It was also an opportunity for pious knights to win a Crusade Indulgence without having to travel to The Holy Lands. The fact that a papal legate allegedly stated "Kill them all. God will know his own," demonstrates the ruthlessness of the Church during this era. Against such an enemy, the best that our brave protagonists can do is survive. I thought the depiction of the Catholic Church and the determination of the French king to establish authority over the south during this era was very authentic in the telling.
The hours that Appleyard has dedicated to researching this period of history shines through in the enthralling narrative. Appleyard has an almost visceral understanding of what makes history worth reading, and she is also the perfect tour-guide to take her readers on a trip back in time to a dangerous past.
This is a story that is rife with historical controversy, and yet I felt it was also a very honest interpretation of the Albigensian Crusade. But what makes this book stand out from a crowded bookcase is Appleyard's novelist eye for the human detail. Within the pages of this remarkable book, we witness the very best and the very worst of humanity. Bonfire of the Perfect by Susan Appleyard is a poignant story and one that will stay with a reader long after they have turned that final page.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Bonfire of the Perfect
Susan was born in England, which is where she learned to love English history, and now lives in Canada in the summer. In winter she and her husband flee the cold for their second home in Mexico. Susan divides her time between writing and her hobby, oil painting. Writing will always be her first love
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