By Peggy O'Brien

cover image of Tongues

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Tongues is a radical retelling of the twelfth-century legend of Heloise and Abelard, she the rapt acolyte, he the brilliant logician. Abelard agrees, at the request of Heloise's uncle, to tutor the precocious young woman. Soon she is with child. She passes her confinement with Abelard's family in Brittany, while in Paris her uncle's henchmen castrate the fornicator. After the birth of the couple's child and a secret marriage, they both take monastic vows and live the rest of their lives cloistered from each other and the world.

The first half, in keeping with the original letters, is entirely in Abelard's voice; but Tongues reveals even more of the profound suffering Abelard endures as a monk. The second half of the book abruptly announces the present day. Heloise finally speaks; a tongue of fire has ignited her, and the truth she utters exposes Abelard's absolutism as a desperate means to avoid more nuanced facts. Suddenly we are in Dublin, not Paris, the west of Ireland, Kerry and Clare, not Brittany. In this second half, Heloise reveals a hard-won sense of autonomy.