Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

It’s January 1853 and seventeen-year-old Annie Stride is standing on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the River Thames, contemplating suicide. Having grown up in the East End of London as part of a large and impoverished family, Annie has drifted into a life of prostitution. Her only friend, Mary Jane, drowned in the Thames the previous year and now, pregnant and homeless, Annie has decided she has no choice but to do the same. Just as she gets ready to jump from the bridge, she is rescued at the last minute by a handsome young man who introduces himself as Francis Maybrick Gill.

Francis is a talented Pre-Raphaelite artist who is planning a new series of paintings on the subject of the ‘Fallen Woman’ – and he wants Annie to be his model. And so Annie, who had been only moments away from death, finds herself living with Francis in his large and luxurious Gower Street home, posing for portraits of Eve, Rahab and Jezebel. As well as using Annie as his muse, Francis also takes steps to improve her mind, to correct her East End speech and to help her with her reading and writing. She has no idea why he is taking so much interest in her, but she is so grateful she doesn’t care – until late one night two visitors come to call and Annie begins to wonder whether Francis Maybrick Gill is really the man she thought he was.

Crimson and Bone, Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, is divided into three parts and everything I have described above happens in the first part alone. The action also moves away from London for a while to Florence and Venice; Fiorato, who is half-Venetian herself, always writes beautifully about Italy and we are given some lovely, vivid descriptions of the country. The author’s love of art also shines through, with lots of information on the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the symbolism in the paintings for which Annie models, and, through the character of a mysterious ‘rainbow man’, the origins of the paints and pigments Francis uses.

From the beginning, the reader is kept in the dark as to Francis’s motives. What are his true plans for Annie? Does he really just want to paint her or does he have some other reason for his sudden interest in her? And what is the significance of his obsession with white camellias? A series of diary entries written by Annie’s friend Mary Jane appear at the start of each chapter which eventually shed some light on things, while also raising more questions along the way. It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the whole situation, but we don’t know what or why and the tension builds slowly throughout the novel.

However, there are a few inaccuracies and anachronisms which do spoil the book somewhat – for example, Annie tries to improve her speech by listening to gramophone records (several decades before they would have been available) and is taken to the theatre to see performances of Pygmalion (not staged until 1913) and Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure (more than twenty years too early). Admittedly, not knowing anything about Adelaide Neilson, I wasn’t aware of the third one until someone else pointed it out in their review, but it makes me wonder what else I might have been too caught up in the story to notice.

And the fact that I became so caught up in the story and the atmosphere – and that I cared about what happened to Annie – meant that I did enjoy this novel overall, despite its flaws.

This is book 15/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring Set in the 1660s, Girl with a Pearl Earring is narrated by Griet, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tile painter who lives in Delft in the Netherlands. When her father is left unable to work after being blinded in an accident, he arranges for Griet to become a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. Settling into her new job, Griet soon finds that coping with the cleaning, washing and dusting are the least of her worries; she also has to learn to deal with the hostility of Vermeer’s wife, the cruelty of one of their young daughters and the jealousy of the family’s other servant, Tanneke. And why is Tanneke jealous? Because Griet has been given the job of dusting Vermeer’s studio – a room rarely entered by the rest of the household. As the months go by, Griet watches painting after painting slowly take shape on Vermeer’s easel, but when she discovers that she herself is going to be the subject of his next portrait she senses that the fewer people who know about it the better…

Having read two of Tracy Chevalier’s other books, Remarkable Creatures and The Virgin Blue, it seemed silly that I still hadn’t read Girl with a Pearl Earring. Now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s her most famous novel. The thing I found most striking about the book is that the writing style actually feels like one of Vermeer’s paintings: clear and detailed and true to life. I am not an expert on Vermeer (or any other artist, to be honest) but this was something that I noticed almost immediately and was very impressed by. If you’re not familiar with Vermeer’s work I highly recommend searching for an image of each painting as it is referred to in the book – I can promise that it will add to your appreciation of the story and of Chevalier’s writing.

This book is set in a time and place that I know very little about and I loved the descriptions of 17th century Delft. Most of Griet’s time is devoted to carrying out her duties within the Vermeer home, but she also has plenty of opportunities to visit other areas of the town – buying meat for the family at the meat market, going to church, visiting her brother at the tile factory where he is an apprentice, or spending time with her parents and the young butcher they hope she will marry. I have never been to Delft but by the time I finished this book I felt I could almost picture what it would have been like to live and work there in the 1660s. The religious aspect of the book – the tensions between the town’s Catholic and Protestant people – was also handled well, showing us the distrust and suspicion that existed between the two communities.

Although there is a romantic element to the story it is quite understated. We are in no doubt as to how Griet feels about Vermeer – it’s noticeable that while she thinks of other people by name, Vermeer is always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and this instantly sets him apart from all the other characters in the story. However, Griet is very slow to admit to herself the significance he has in her life. The romantic aspect of the book is quiet and subtle and lacks drama and passion, as does the rest of the story, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I enjoyed following Griet’s everyday life – shopping at the market, chopping vegetables, dusting the studio – and I enjoyed learning about Vermeer’s work and painting techniques. I didn’t need drama.

But despite finding so much to like about this book, there were also some things that I didn’t like. With the exception of Griet, I thought most of the other characters felt more like stereotypes than fully developed characters. And while I did find the writing style very effective, there seemed to be a distance between the narrator and the reader; the books that I really love are the ones where I can share in the characters’ hopes and fears, where I can laugh with them and cry with them – but I didn’t feel any of that with this book. Still, of the three Chevalier novels I’ve now read, this is my favourite so far and I’m looking forward to trying some of her others.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson

Pictures at an Exhibition In 1942 the National Gallery in London launched its ‘Picture of the Month’ scheme. Each month one of the masterpieces that had been hidden away to protect them from bombing raids during the war would be brought out of storage and put on display. Daisy Milton, who is working in London as a typist, decides to go along every month to look at the paintings in the hope that it will give her something to look forward to and help her get through the days until the war is over. After each visit to the gallery she writes a letter to her friend Elizabeth in Canada, describing the painting and how it made her feel.

In the present day we meet Claire and her husband, Rob. When Rob’s grandmother, Elizabeth, dies she leaves him a box containing the letters she received from Daisy throughout the war. A recent tragedy has almost destroyed Claire and Rob’s marriage and Claire finds some comfort in reading Daisy’s letters and going to look at the paintings once a month just as Daisy did. As the months go by and Claire finds herself drawn into Daisy’s world she starts to see some parallels between Daisy’s life in the past and her own life in the present.

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, but although I was interested in both the wartime and modern day storylines I did prefer the wartime one because I found Daisy a much more appealing character than Claire. For a long time Claire annoyed me because she seemed so self-absorbed and unwilling to move on with her life. I had more sympathy for Rob, who came across as a kind, considerate husband who was doing his best to make their marriage work and starting to run out of patience. As Claire’s story unfolded I started to warm to her a bit more, but I would still rather have spent more time with Daisy.

My favourite thing about this novel was having the opportunity to learn about the paintings that were displayed in the National Gallery during the war. Each chapter of the book begins with a QR code that you can scan with your phone (if you have the right sort of phone) and it will take you directly to the painting, or you can look them up online yourself later if you prefer – they are all easy to find on the National Gallery website. Some were very famous paintings that I was already familiar with, such as The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and The Hay Wain by John Constable, but there were others I knew nothing about. It was a fascinating experience to view each of these paintings first through Daisy’s eyes and Claire’s, then to be able to look at them myself and see things in them that I might not have thought of otherwise.

Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book.

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges The Master of Bruges is presented as the fictional memoirs of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling. In December 1464, following the death of his master, the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, Hans travels to Bruges where he works at the Burgundian court, painting portraits of the nobility. As an artist, Memling is naturally a very observant, perceptive person and can offer the reader some insights into both the politics of the period and the lives and personalities of the people he meets in Bruges.

One night two strangers calling themselves ‘Ned and Dick Plant’ come to seek refuge at Memling’s house and Hans finds himself drawn into the drama and intrigues of the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between England’s House of York and House of Lancaster. And when several years later he is invited to England and renews his acquaintance with Ned and Dick, he becomes caught up in one of history’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, who many people believe were murdered by their uncle, Richard III.

Before reading this book I had heard of Hans Memling but was not familiar with his work. The only one of his paintings I knew anything about was his triptych The Last Judgment, which featured a portrait of the banker Tommaso Portinari being weighed in St Michael’s scales, and was captured by the Danzig pirate Pauel Benecke as it was being shipped to Italy. The only reason I was aware of this anecdote was because it formed a minor plot point in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series (specifically, in To Lie with Lions and Caprice and Rondo). Luckily, many of Memling’s paintings can be seen online and I can guarantee that you’ll want to look at them as you read. There are also some short chapters interspersed throughout the novel in which Hans shares with us his views regarding artistic technique, perspective, focus, colours, and some of the tricks artists use to please their sitters, and I enjoyed reading these. As well as being fascinating to read, these chapters are relevant to the story as Memling’s descriptions of his techniques are either directly or indirectly linked to aspects of the plot.

I thought the first part of the novel, which details Hans’ early days as an artist, worked very well but not the second part, after he travels to England. I was interested in learning about Hans and his portraits and I was also interested in the Richard III story – it was the way the two were combined that didn’t work for me. Despite the Wars of the Roses being one of my areas of interest in historical fiction, I think I would have liked this book more if it had continued to tell the story of Memling’s life in Bruges rather than changing focus halfway through to concentrate on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

I don’t expect historical novelists to always stick rigidly to the facts, otherwise they would be writing non-fiction rather than fiction, but this particular book stretches credibility too much for me. I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, but I wished it had given more information on exactly which aspects of the story were based on fact and which were fictional. As far as I can tell there is no evidence to suggest that Hans Memling ever came to England or had any involvement with the Plantagenets. I also found it hard to believe Morgan’s theories regarding what happened to the two princes (especially a plan of Edward IV’s to have them declared illegitimate), though they were certainly very imaginative ideas. I was happy enough with the characterisation of Richard III, though – he is one of my favourite historical figures and I am definitely of the opinion that he has been unfairly treated by history, so it was good to see him portrayed in a more positive light in this book.

Because of the problems I’ve noted above, I can’t say that I loved The Master of Bruges, but I’m glad I kept reading to the end as there were some big surprises within the final chapters. I think as long as readers are aware that this book does not always give an entirely historically accurate account of the period and that it sometimes takes a more speculative approach to what might possibly have happened, it can be enjoyed as something refreshingly different and fun.