Just a month ago I finished Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks. I thought I had damned it with faint praise, but looking back, I find I was rather enthusiastic. Maybe Under My Skin is not quite as good or maybe the bizarre-doings-in-the-clinic trope is too familiar from P.D. James (who has explored it, what, three times?). Mouthy Hannah Wolfe gets hired this time to figure out who’s behind the sabotage in what’s called a “health farm.” Turns out her new client, Olivia Marchant, is the beautiful, youthful wife of a plastic surgeon. No, actually, please call him an aesthetic surgeon. Competent if standard plotting with narrator Hannah musing about questions of age, beauty, appearance and reality. Dunant is clearly disturbed by a culture that embraces the knife as a cure for the years.
Here they come. From down the road we can hear harnesses jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring sky.
Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitered, martyred Saint Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats — the Canterbury monks must be raking it in.
I won’t quote any more of the opening of Mistress of the Art of Death, but you get the idea: exuberant, irreverent, clever. (I loved “mitered, martyred Saint Thomas.”) It’s a catchy economical form of exposition and if the handwriting of Geoffrey Chaucer pokes out here and there, I didn’t have a problem with that. Ariana Franklin can hold her own.
Yet I had reservations. The bone I have to pick with Franklin is not really the issue of anachronism. As she points out in the Author’s Note, you can’t write a novel about the 12th century without it. For one thing, the narrative voice as we know it didn’t exist at the time, nor did most of our storytelling techniques. I do wonder a lot about imposing contemporary understandings of character and motivation on people who lived 1000 years ago but Hilary Mantel’s handling of Thomas Cromwell didn’t bother me. So I should at least be consistent about this.
And there is a lot to enjoy in Mistress of the Art of Death. Franklin’s mastery of landscape, atmosphere, and pacing absolutely gripped my attention. However, this is basically a murder mystery dressed in historical costume and it’s not a formula that normally works for me. The basic structure of solving a murder is often incompatible with the historical framework. Here, for instance, we have Adelia, a proto-pathologist from Salerno. Proto-feminist, too: abrupt, efficient, outspoken, ultimately earning respect. She is in Cambridge to find out who has been killing small children, and the way she does so is by examining their bodies. Her sidekick is Mansur, the tall Muslim castrato. (I believe Franklin made him a castrato to explain the absence of sexual tension between him and Adelia; there’s no other reason for that quirk.) Finally, working with them, is Simon of Naples. Yes, a Jew. Three outcasts functioning on the outskirts of English society to solve a problem, exposing prejudice and ignorance along the way.
Well, I have a hard time with anachronistically plucky and capable females. Especially ones with white-blonde hair who unwittingly enchant the one highly-evolved male in the story. Sarah Dunant’s books walk this line sometimes, and I am usually ready to overlook the problem. Franklin exacerbated it, though, by giving Adelia advanced ideas about capital punishment: “She was a woman who regarded legislated death as an effrontery by those imposing it… because life, to her, who wished to save it, was the only true miracle. She was a woman who never sat with the judge or stood with the executioner but always clung to the bar with the accused.”
And yet the writing is so good, the dialogue so lively, the secondary characters such fun, that I suspect I’ll find myself back in Adelia’s company before long; Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series. One down, three to go.
I wonder why so many writers choose to begin with murder mysteries. Could it be that so many of us read them so faithfully? Another possibility is that there are simply so many murder mysteries published that the odds of selling one to a publisher aren’t bad. Or it may be that the strict form offers writers training wheels. And them maybe I’m looking at the whole question backwards and the issue is really why so many terrific writers abandon writing mysteries and move on to something more ambitious. Even Julian Barnes wrote four mysteries (as Dan Kavanagh) in the 1980s, while also writing novels like Metroland and Flaubert’s Parrot.
Maybe I am reading into Birth Marks, Sarah Dunant’s first Hannah Wolfe mystery of three. But it seemed to be an exploration of a genre that wouldn’t hold this writer for very long. Hannah Wolfe herself is not an especially original creation, though a very appealing one. A wisecracking sometime employee in a small-time security firm, she is obviously both too posh and too well-educated for her job. (In Birth Marks she turns out to speak perfect French, for instance.) Some ill-defined restlessness and man trouble are Dunant’s only explanation for what otherwise seems like Hannah’s slumming.
That’s a minor quibble, though. Birth Marks is completely enjoyable. The plot concerns a young woman who has vanished, and Hannah pretty expeditously finds out that Carolyn has gotten herself mixed up with a French industrialist for nefarious reasons. I thought I had this figured out and about two-thirds of the way through the book, my guess was revealed to be correct…. but! There was more! Further layers of deception! No one, it turns out, has any principles, possibly including the victim Carolyn. As Hannah puts it: “Funny. When you think about it the only really glamorous thing about Marlowe is Chandler’s style. Strip that away and what have you got but sleaze?” No wonder Dunant bailed after three mysteries!
I don’t think I’d be brave enough to write a novel in which the last 50 pages subverted the previous 325. Just think how careful you’d have to be, laying it all out beforehand, from major plot points to dialogue to the characters’ thoughts and reactions. Everything has to work from two very different angles. And I think it probably helps to have a strong narrator, which Sarah Dunant does. In the Company of the Courtesan is told from the point of view of Bucino Teodoldi, a dwarf, who serves as major-domo to Fiammetta Bianchini, the courtesan of the title. He is smart, well-read, and cynical. Well, you would be, as a dwarf in 16th century Italy, where you are at best a joke and at worst a punching bag.
Dunant, as I’ve said here before, is a terrific writer so Bucino’s narrative voice is completely absorbing. We readers buy his point of view. But I have to admit that I was wondering a little bit where Dunant was going with the story. It was pleasant to read, but seemed to be drifting somewhat, until suddenly Dunant turned the whole thing upside down. And once she does, you absolutely must go back over the tale in your head, and you start to consider characters and incidents and even themes — glass and water, in this case — which take on a completely new meaning. I don’t want to ruin the plot by saying one more thing about it.
As in The Birth of Venus and Sacred Hearts, In the Company of the Courtesan is set in sixteenth-century Italy. In fact the 1527 Sack of Rome provides the launching pad for the plot, as Bucino and Fiammetta, ruined and wounded in the invasion, retreat to Fiammetta’s home town of Venice, where they must claw their way back into business in a different kind of city. Dunant makes much of what is remarkable about Venice, both its topography and the immensely sophisticated polyglot population. ( I can’t say I’m entirely sure what Titian is doing in there, except to paint Fiammetta and add historical window-dressing.) I read this trilogy out of order — Sacred Hearts is the last in the series — but even so it’s impressive and enjoyable, dramatic and stimulating. I wonder what Dunant’s working on now…
I was not initially thrilled by The Birth of Venus. I really loved Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts but authors are not always consistent — its complexity could have been a fluke. So when I read the prologue of The Birth of Venus, in which a pious old nun’s death exposes her weirdly erotic tattoo and her breast cancer turns out to be a hoax, I was put off. Even less did I like the first chapter, when the story scrolled back to the tempestuous teen years of Alessandra Cecchi, the clever, strong-minded heroine whose unconventional beauty and independence set her at odds with her prosperous Florentine family. I’m just not really into those smarty-pants girls who don’t understand how their looks drive men wild. Also worrisome was the fact that young Alessandra was a fledgling artist. I thought I could see how the book would develop — Alessandra would turn into a brilliant female artist, and find love, and her feistiness would bring her success.
But I kept reading, despite my mild irritation, and eventually realized that I was sorely underestimating Sarah Dunant. Yes, the feisty quality is there, and yes, the looks drive men wild. But The Birth of Venus is not principally a romance novel. It’s about the complexity of life in Florence at the very end of the fifteenth century, as Medici leadership gives way to Savonarola’s demagoguery and the resurgent church pushes back against the widespread acceptance of humanism. Perhaps we could say that it’s about the conflict between fundamentalism and liberal learning.
And then, it’s set in Florence. Painting, fresco, poetry, scholarship, a Botticelli manuscript, fabulous clothes all feature big here. Dante is quoted. The Bonfire of the Vanities is depicted. People starve and die of plague. Isn’t this why we all read historical fiction? To travel in time and place, maybe to pin down some facts in the meantime? Dunant is really good at all of this, especially the way she weaves motifs of light and dark through her descriptions. The characters, too, are more complex than they at first appear.
I did find the eventual romantic thread a little bit too pat, with its invocation of big-time artistic star power, but that’s a pretty small complaint, given the real pleasure afforded by the rest of the novel.
I owe this book to one of you, my readers. Who? I believe it was a discussion of “nun books” that prompted this recommendation, and I am deeply, deeply grateful, because Sacred Hearts ticks a lot of boxes for me. First, of course, the nun thing. (I’m not alone in this fascination. More below.) Second, it’s profoundly absorbing historical fiction — the kind of book that sings out to you as you walk past, attempting to wring some productivity out of the day, which would not include lying on the sofa sucking down another novel. Third, Sarah Dunant is working with some really interesting ideas here and she has the good sense to leave them prickly and unresolved, while at the same time providing a satisfying resolution to the book.
OK, nuns. A closed community is often fascinating for an author. (Related categories: the country-house novel; the boarding-school novel.) The intense interactions, power struggles, emotional tensions and institutional encouragement of self-examination can make for a great tale. (Dunant doesn’t make much of the potential for sexual shenanigans aside from a polite acknowledgement that these things do sometimes occur: this is not what interests her.) Finally, the devotional life paradoxically courts self-forgetfulness as well as self-examination. And sometimes this loss of self, or ecstasy, can look a lot like hysteria.
Sacred Hearts is set in 16th-century Ferrara, in the convent of Santa Caterina. The chief protagonist, Suora Zuana, is the dispensary sister, which is to say the medical officer. Dunant sets her terms early: this is a place where “so many noblewomen of Ferrara find space to pursue their own ways to live inside God’s protection.” That is to say, in a community where they do not live according to men’s rhythms or in men’s service. The story is set into motion when a new novice is admitted to the convent, a rich girl from Milan who was not consulted about her fate and spends her first night screaming and breaking down her cell. Zuana is drawn to Serafina’s spirit and intelligence; then she is drawn into Serafina’s drama. Which soon becomes the drama of the entire convent because, as Dunant points out, an enclosed community is a delicate organism. Moreover Dunant eventually situates Santa Caterina’s internal struggles against the brisk, chilly wind of the Counter-Reformation which threatens to do away with many of the sisters’ most cherished comforts, liberties, and traditions.
And to add to this, there’s all kinds of traditional drama. (Along with some nun-novel staples, like stigmata.) Knife wounds, poisons, itinerant troubadours. I was especially impressed by Dunant’s account of an eating disorder, when one of the young and high-strung sisters takes her penance of fasting a little too far. For any woman who’s ever had a tense relationship with what she eats, this will feel familiar.
Best thing? There are two earlier Dunant novels set in Renaissance Italy and they are now on my Kindle.