Who would have thought that a book about growing tulips could be so exciting? And yet Alexandre Dumas managed to write a compelling page turner based on that very subject. Dumas became one of my favourite authors a few years ago when I read The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers but I had not read any of his lesser-known works until now. I regret not reading The Black Tulip sooner because I enjoyed it almost as much as the two books I’ve just mentioned.
The book is set in seventeenth century Holland and begins with the violent murders of John and Cornelius De Witt, suspected of conspiring against the young Stadtholder, William of Orange. Our hero is the fictional godson of Cornelius De Witt, who is also called Cornelius. Cornelius Van Baerle is a keen tulip-fancier whose biggest goal in life is to produce the world’s first black tulip. However, Van Baerle is not the only tulip-grower in the race for the Grand Black Tulip – and his rival Isaac Boxtel will stop at nothing to get there first!
The first few chapters put the novel in historical context and will be slightly challenging to anyone like myself, who doesn’t have much knowledge of Dutch history, but if you read carefully and refer to the notes it’s easy enough to follow. As soon as Dumas finishes setting the scene, the story explodes into action and never stops until the final page, taking us on a journey through the full range of human emotions – love, hatred, greed, loyalty, jealousy and obsession.
Rosa, the only female character in the book, is a jailer’s daughter who falls in love with Cornelius and finds herself having to compete with the tulip for his affections. Despite making a few remarks of the “I am but a woman” variety she is otherwise a strong and quick-thinking character who does what she knows is right, even if it means going against the wishes of Cornelius or her father. The starring role in the story, though, goes to the elusive black tulip itself.
As you might have guessed, I really loved this book. If you enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo there’s a good chance that you’ll like this one too, as it’s very similar in writing style, pace and even several plot elements. It could almost be described as a shorter, less epic, less complex version of The Count.
Publisher: OUP (Oxford World’s Classics)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1850)/Pages: 258/Source: Library book