Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunnant

A mysterious and arresting start, an historical and action packed narrative and an enjoyable read. There we are. That's it in a nutshell. A novel dripping with historical details with a bit of sex thrown in. But the sign of an ex-thriller writer is there right from the start.

Preparing the corpse of an elderly nun for burial, two sisters find she has not only a stinking mass of rotting intestines strapped to her and not the tumor they supposed, but also an erotic snake tattoo around her torso!

As it is almost impossible to guess how this could possibly come about the reader simply has to read on. Transported to Florence in 1492, we meet the fourteen year old heroine, Allessandra. Dunant has done her research and describes the setting in the most colourful way. We see the beauty of Florence, we smell it, touch it, sense it and eventually are shocked by the historical turn of events.

The narrative is in the first person so it is through Allessandra's eyes that we understand the restrictions – not allowed to leave her house un-chaperoned, to be alone with a man, to be employed in anything other than household skills – that were current in the merchant and upper classes at the time and that she felt so keenly. Her passion was to paint and that was definitely not a suitable occupation for a girl.

Historical knowledge of the banking dynasty of the Medici family is well known. We are aware of the beautiful architectural structures they built, the wonderful paintings and art they commissioned and we are aware in a cardboard, factual way of the political machinations of the time. But what Dunant does is to bring it and the other Florence alive too, the one that is peopled by the lower echelons, one in which by the side of beauty and knowledge is pestilence and the fear of persecution. Where rabbles jostle to hear the mad monk, Savonarolla, preach Christian restraint and similarly jostle to witness torture and death and the original bonfire of the vanities.

This novel has been published for some years now and many readers will have read it or read the reviews so I won't repeat the plot. Because, for me, it is the sense of place that Dunant conjures up that is the most impressive feature of the novel. Read it if you intend to travel to Florence and, when you stand in front of a piece of stunning architecture or a beautiful painting, conjure up Dunant's description of the city at that time and be even more amazed.

I mention the mystery in the opening scene and Dunant continues to feed us clues throughout the story: "He will give you the freedom you desire"; "For Tomaso a silver belt rather handsome I thought". But, eventually, it is as if the author having thought of a great opening chapter, and having taken us back to the start of it all, cannot then quite complete the circle convincingly: the dead nun cannot be elderly, the tattoo has no authenticity, the method of faking the disease is improbable, her female life companion could not possibly have travelled to find those she sought.

Those are my only criticisms, and it sounds churlish to mention them when there is so much that is excellent about this novel. Dunant has very successfully changed her genre to historical novelist – she writes well, fluidly and colourfully – so the quality of the ending of The Birth of Venus is a mystery.


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