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'The Birth of Venus': The Hellion Nun
By VALERIE MARTIN

Published: March 7, 2004

Sarah Dunant's seventh novel opens on a hot summer day in 1528, inside a convent east of Florence. Two nuns are assigned the task of preparing for burial the corpse of Sister Lucrezia, who, after 30 years of seclusion, piety and prayer, has died from a tumor on her breast. As they remove her habit, the sisters are astonished to discover that the tumor, from which the dying woman suffered mightily in her last days, is actually a pig's bladder, purposefully secreted beneath the cloth to simulate evidence of a disease Sister Lucrezia did not have. The second shock, revealed when the younger sister tears open the dead woman's shift ''in a single rip until the corpse was revealed naked on the bed,'' is a tattooed line that thickens, ''rounding itself out from a tail into the body of a snake, silver green in color.'' This serpent curls down the nun's torso until, ''at the point where the snake's body became its head, instead of the reptilian skull was the softer, rounder shape of a man's face: the head thrown back, the eyes closed as if in rapture and the tongue, snake-long still, darting out from his mouth downward toward the opening of Sister Lucrezia's sex.''

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