When a convent crypt in an old slavers' port in South America is shattered to make way for a five-star hotel, a mass of lustrous copper-colored hair tumbles out, 22 meters of it, attached to a small skull. The only legible marking on the stone is the given name Sierva María de Todos los Angeles, and Gabriel García Márquez, witness to the event, wonders if this is perhaps the tomb of the little marquise revered along the Caribbean coast as a miracle worker.
In the hands of Nobel Prize winner Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera), the legend of the girl bitten by a rabid dog on her 12th birthday, 200 years before, becomes a mesmerizing tale.
The unloved child of a dissipated aristocrat and his cacao-addicted wife, Sierva María is raised in the slave quarters of the family mansion until the fateful bite arouses her father's concern. Subjected to horrendous "cures," she is imprisoned in a convent to be exorcised. But the earnest exorcist himself becomes obsessed by the child and overcome by love. "It is the demon," he tells his bishop, who finds him in tears, "the most terrible one of all."
With exquisite prose, Márquez brings the magic, superstition and imposing power of the church to vivid life in a wondrous story of doomed and forbidden love. (Knopf, $21)