From the Drop of Heaven by Juliette Godot is an engrossing and unsettling story set in the Salm region of France in the late 16th century. It begins against the background of the ascendancy of Calvinists in Geneva and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris setting the scene for the dissentions, religious rivalries and heresies that underpin the novel. The narrative concentrates on a young couple Catherine Cathillon and Nicolas de la Goutte de Paradis but takes in their extended households over a period of forty years. Catherine is from a self-sufficient and tolerant peasant family that, while Catholic, keeps itself apart from the local church and its belligerent parish priest. Nicolas is a younger son of the local blacksmith and mayor. The novel traces Catherine and Nicolas’s developing relationship and eventual marriage through a period of change across Europe where many still clung to the older beliefs and attitudes. The period in Salm saw war and plague, the havoc wrought by itinerant soldiers and deserters, religious change and the redrawing of the boundaries of states. This was not a time when it was possible to live quietly in a beautiful corner of the world.
With several characters not from the local area – marked out by their accents and in the case of Catherine’s step-grandmother the colour of her skin and of Martin, a de la Goutte de Paradis family friend, by his scarred face – From the Drop of Heaven illustrates what it is to be an outsider in a small community where memories are long and grudges and petty jealousies lovingly nursed over many years leading finally to accusations of witchcraft and heresy. Throughout the novel there is a sense of threat lurking even in the most idyllic of places whether from wolves, snakes, itinerant soldiers or spurned lovers.
Written in the third person, the story is told from a variety of points of view drawn from a wide range of characters beyond that of Catherine and Nicolas. This approach gives the reader a broad view of the daily concerns and aspirations of ordinary people at this time. Both Catherine and Nicolas are likeable characters, with their own human weaknesses and flaws, who grow from young people in their teens at the start of the novel to mature adults in their middle years.
The novel is based on the lives of Juliette Godot’s forebears – she is a direct descendant of Catherine Cathillon and Nicolas de la Goutte de Paradis. From the Drop of Heaven draws together the many threads that led to accusations of witchcraft and heresy and contributed to the upheavals of the early modern period. The interplay of superstition and religious belief is well described and set against emerging scientific knowledge. The novel clearly shows the difficulties of those seeking an ordinary life when the world was raging around them. It gives a strong sense of village life, as complex and messy as our modern lives, though far more dangerous.
I received a pre-publication copy of From the Drop of Heaven from the author.