Blood and Beauty – Sarah Dunant’s book of the Borgias

This new book is an absorbing, convincing read. I know nothing about the geography and politics of medieval Italy, or even modern Italy, yet this is a book whereby such previous knowledge  is unnecessary. It is a brilliant read!

The book follows the progress, trials and tribulations of the Borgia family who lived and effectively ruled Italy in the late 1400s and early 1500s. It is a family business which is built on an impossibility; the Pope, known as Alexander, has children who he not only acknowledges but who become his power base. Cesare, the eldest, is a man of physical power and supreme strategy. He begins as a Cardinal until  the revenues and rewards of the post are insufficient for his plans, and he fulfills his promise as a military leader. He is a cruel, clever man, impatient with weakness and failure, prepared to do anything to keep his father and family in power. Lucrezia is the  much loved sister and daughter who has the wit and insight to attempt to make the best of her position as marriageable woman to cement or break political alliances. She has opportunities to love, but the man who loves her most is also the most deadly. Her survival is vital, her happiness is conditional on the greater advantage of her family. Alexander, the Pope with more love for his family, grandeur and politics than his Church, is a constant,  powerful presence in the novel whose emotions are enormous, but of consequence for so many.

Sarah Dunant, who has taken part in Radio 3 Free Thinking events at the Sage that I have attended, has achieved so much in this book. It never drags, the research seems sound (not that I’m an expert!) and the sheer narrative is terrifically engaging. The situations seem modern, the cruelty to various characters real, the characters vivid in their reality. It is a story of bad people doing some bad things in part, but it is also a story of emotional intensity in heightened circumstances.

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book, and it distracted me for a couple of days from real life. The ending, as has been pointed out by others, is not complete and there is a strong hint of a sequel. It cannot come quickly enough for me, though it will necessitate cancelling all engagements for a few days…

Sacred Hearts….and fruits!

At long last it’s harvest time- it may well be over a 2 week period in the Parish Church… no doubt details will follow…but in our garden we are busy harvesting blackcurrants, gooseberries and new potatoes. Last week HM was asked to pick red currants – which he eventually did – except that this week we seem to have black currants. Same bush? Or under ripe? The gooseberries were definitely done, but they bite. Gloves will have to be issued. The potatoes were excellent, but what happened to the strawberries? The mysteries deepen…

Meanwhile, a book which combines a thorough knowledge of things natural with an enclosed community. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is a novel set in a convent in the Italian city of Ferrara in 1570. This sounds as if it could be limited, but within the convent is all human life. Politics, jealousies, ecstasies, all in a community of females each with their own story. Seen as a viable alternative to marriage, many of the women in the enclosed order of nuns are educated and maintain their wealthy status. Encouraged to make generous dowries, families of high status retain an influence on the pecking order of the nuns, for whom religious conviction is at the very least variable. In some ways the old order is breaking down; there are stirrings of reform from afar, but in the meantime the nuns continue their pattern of life undisturbed as they prepare for and perform at the festival.

Into this fixed regime is introduced a novice who violently objects to her incarceration. Serafina brings a great endowment of money and intelligence, and the promise of a uniquely wonderful singing voice. The infirmary sister, Zuana , is charged with reconciling the novice to her fate, and introduces the girl to her astounding knowledge of medical herbs and spices. Zuana gained her knowledge from her physician father, but is only allowed to practise medicine in the confines of the all female society.  As both women fight to assert themselves and in Serafina’s case, escape the convent, the pressures of the forces of religion, politics and sheer humanity carry the narrative forward.

And that, perhaps, shows the problem with the book. My reading of Dunant’s other excellent books such as In the Company of the Courtesan conveys her ability to establish character and setting quickly and deeply. I could emphasize with the two main characters   very speedily; the girl’s determination to escape, the older woman’s frustration in her limited abilities to treat and cure. The story is simple, but gets drawn out perhaps beyond its natural length. If a novel has a natural rhythm, this one struggles to maintain it. The reader seems to be continually ahead of the narrative, and perhaps wishes the characters would catch up. But having said that, the colour, detail and depth of the writing meant that I was more than willing to finish the book.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a weightier achievement than Dunant’s previous work, and reflected a great depth of research and description. I felt for the characters and understood their motivations against the restrictive female community. I suspect it would appeal to women more than men, but would be a challenging and interesting choice for a bookclub. It introduces many issues of religion, corruption, gender and historical context. I would recommend it, with a warning that it is not a quick or easy read, but an enjoyable one.