11 July 2014

Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

I had the great pleasure of hearing Sarah Dunant speak about writing historical fiction a few weeks back and I completely GET why she writes they way she does! (Is that ignominiously presumptuous, reader?) She's really quite passionate and vivacious, all hand gesturing and emphatic. She reminds me of my Classics teacher back in high school, only a little more jazzed.

Anyhow, once the masterclass was over, I sidled up to her, head bowed and mumbled my appreciation (aka tempered adoration) of her work, saying I looked forward to reading more about The Borgias under her penmanship. I held back, very Britishly, from blurting out that Sacred Hearts was one of my all time fave books.

I did confess that I once I read Blood and Beauty, I was really quite stunned that people lived that way, right there in the heart of the Vatican. Sorry, reader, I'm jumping ahead while you're probably wondering, what is she blabbling on about? Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant is a story of the The Borgias, the infamous Spanish family who dominated The Vatican for a certain time (late 1400s-1500s) and were basically like a Mafia clan. They were ruthless. To the extreme. Even though one of them was the actual Pope.

Courtesy of sarahdunant.com
After reading Sacred Hearts, I was intrigued by Dunant's follow-up and the subject material; I remember vaguely seeing some promos for a 'Borgias' TV show starring Jeremy Irons a couple of years back and being rather taken with the decadence and costumes, reader, which looked to die for. Obviously, I was sold on that.

Needless to say Blood and Beauty is a great read. We follow Rodrigo Borgia who becomes Pope from the opening and then we watch as he conducts his sons, Cesare and Juan and daughter, Lucrezia. Yeah, so a cardinal and then pope has illegitimate children and no one bats an eyelid. This is nothing, the least of all problems. And neither is it an issue that our pope is sleeping with a teenage girl either. That's what we're working with here. Absolute free reign while there isn't anyone else to challenge their might or wealth.

With his children, Rodrigo is the papa bear and he has a great frightening degree of control - not necessarily forced either. His children genuinely does as he commands, as if he is the Lord and not Christ. But not one of them is feeble or submissive - they all have something to say, some stamp to make and they fight for it - even if Lucrezia is unashamedly used as a pawn. Dunant writes Rodrigo as rather quite pantomime-ish, his emotions as big as his frame - in a way almost too big, for it's as if he feels TOO MUCH all the time. It's pretty relentless but then, ah, it's the Latin raw passion and bull-like determination. It's equally found in both Rodrigo's sons and one of his fiesty daughters-in-law, Sancia.

It's all an enchanting concoction, both headily disturbing and alluring - people are killed, allegiances are switched as quickly as the wind turns and allies are enemies and enemies allies at the drop of a hat. Example (SPOILER) - Lucrezia is married to Alfonso, who is Cesare's great friend at first but a change in alliances means Alfonso's family is suddenly the enemy. Does it matter to Cesare that Alfonso is married to his sister, to Rodrigo that he's married to his daughter? Nope, nope, it's as black and white as that. Blood be spilling and adultery be happening all day, every day. Oh and a hint of incest is all the rage now!

We're in the Vatican but there isn't an ounce of godliness reigning any of these people's passions - whether it's senseless murder, profiteering or debauchery. The heart of the Catholic church be damned, basically. It's disconcerting to read but I know I'm not supposed to be surprised. I just am - a little. I've realised that I don't have anything against reading about an ugly world operating in the shadows of veneered beauty, I just like to know (or be reassured) that there is some sacred place in which to dwell, whether that's physical, mental or emotional. I feel really quite exposed when the settings and characters do not give that. (That's why I gave up on 'A Song of Ice and Fire' - SIDENOTE - reading about The Borgias in this way is not too dissimilar to reading about the Lannisters and how they go about controlling and manipulating).

Anyhow, Dunant's writing is infused with the passion she has for the genre and the time period. It comes to life like a painting that jumps and bounds and is rarely still. The only time my engagement lagged was when we have a period dedicated to Cesare's military accomplishments (wars and battles, ugh) but it's not for long.


Enthralling and appalling in equal measure. I really felt I'd been put through the ringer when I finished reading. It's as whirlwind as The Borgias' rise to power. When The Borgias show was being promoted, they were using the tag line 'The first crime family' - and if we take that as so, well whoa, did The Borgias hit the ground running.

Dunant is working on the follow-up book and I don't blame her - what ELSE can this family get up to?! I'm intrigued so I'll be tuning in.

 Chai Black
Taste Like: History and Spices