The Summer holidays are over and the new term has started, but, for the currently childless ones, this simply signals that it’s time to go on our holidays. So, from me, some suggested Autumn Reads.
First, my own. I will be taking ‘The Summer of Broken Stories‘ by James Wilson, with me to the South of France later this month. Several friends have recommended it, after having read ‘The Village‘. I will report back. It has been very well reviewed, though it hasn’t ‘broken through’ into the mainstream.
What makes a good holiday read? Something light, but immersive? How about a trio of historical novels, all published in 2003, all by women and all commercially successful as well as ticking the ‘literary fiction’ box.
Most folk learned about Tracy Chevalier when her 1999 ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring‘ hit the best seller lists on the back of the 2003 Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson film. Before success as a novelist, however, she worked as an editorial assistant on Macmillan’s Dictionary of Art and retains that focus on artwork, though not just painting. I recently re-read ‘The Lady and the Unicorn‘ her tightly plotted historical novel centred around the creation, in the late 15th century of the exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, now hanging in the Musee de Moyen-Age in Paris.
Essentially a romance, but an unusual one, the book traces the tapestries, from inception and design in Paris to triumphant unveiling, via the Flemish workshop of a master weaver. It tells the stories of the people who made them and the family for which they were made, through the first person narratives of the characters. It’s a gripping tale, very easy to read but full of erudition and knowledge and it, imperceptibly, draws you into its historical world.
The second novel is ‘The Birth of Venus‘ by Sarah Dunant, the first of a trio of her novels exploring the lives of women in Renaissance Italy. It takes the form of the memoir, or testament, of the Reverend Sister Lucrezia in the convent of S. Vitella, dated 1528. In it Alessandra, this nun with a interesting past, looks back to her girlhood in Medici Florence and, through her own fifteen year old eyes, revisits the rise of Savonarola and his bonfire of the vanities.
Also immensely erudite, but easy to read, this novel touches upon big themes of art and philosophy, politics and the call of the extreme, talent nurtured or destroyed, and weaves a ‘thriller’ plot in there as well. It has been criticised for trying to be too many different stories at once, but I found it a rich and satisfying book.
The final novel is ‘The Colour‘ by Rose Tremain. I loved ‘Music and Silence‘ by the much garlanded novelist and ‘Restoration‘, but this novel is less lauded than those, despite being, to my mind, just as good. This may be because of its unfashionable setting in nineteenth century New Zealand, though ten years after ‘The Colour‘ was published Eleanor Catton set her Booker winner ‘The Luminaries‘ there ( a different type of story altogether ). In many ways, ‘The Colour‘ is just as intense as Tremain’s earlier books, if not more so, as its protagonists face the harsh and unforgiving conditions of South Island in 1864 and, eventually, are drawn into the quest and lust for gold.
Tremain draws their lives and emotions with precise, uncomplicated but perfect prose, her third person narration giving a remove and dispassionate tone, even as she reveals their thoughts. Her language is often theirs, as she portrays the delicate balances between individuals, their pasts and their hopes for the future and how the land marks, bends and almost destroys them. It is an immensely sad and beautiful tale.
Three books, each a ‘lesser known’ work of an author with some famous successes. For beach, mountain-side or pool-side, or sitting, sipping, under an olive tree as a bell tolls in the campanile down in the valley, each creates its own historical world in which the reader is immersed.
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