From the book
jacket: Escaping the sack of Rome in
1527, with their stomachs churning on
the jewels they have swallowed, the
courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf
companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the
shimmering city born out of water to
become a miracle of east-west trade:
rich and rancid, pious and profitable,
beautiful and squalid.
With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her.
Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan's court. But Fiammetta and Bucino's greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.
Comment: Sarah Dunant's historical novels are proving to be far grittier than most of their ilk, which makes them particularly appealing. Many novels set in Renaissance Italy portray it as a rather comfortable place to live, with every second person engaged in artistic endeavors or intellectual discoveries, and often sounding dangerously politically correct. However, the reality is that most people's lives were unchanged by the "rebirth" of culture that was happening in a few places, and Italy (which at the time comprised of a number of city states) was the home to endless power struggles, a number of notorious totalitarian rulers, considerable raping and pillaging - and a few good artists.
In the words of the Washington Post review of Dunant's first historical novel, The Birth of Venus: "[Dunant] has injected a kind of realpolitik into the genre, making it far more poignant and interesting."
If your view of historical novels has been jaded by too many bland offerings, In The Company of The Courtesan maybe just the book to get you to reassess the genre - and if you love historical novels, this is definitely one you'll want to take a close look at.
Incidentally, the picture on the cover shows part of Titian's Venus of Urbino.
About the Author
Sarah Dunant was born in 1950 and educated in London before reading History at Newnham College, Cambridge. She is a former presenter of both BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and BBC Television's The Late Show. She is the creator of private investigator Hannah Wolfe and author of the Marla Masterson series (writing as Peter Dunant). In addition she has written a number of stand-alone psychological thrillers. Her first foray into historical fiction was the New York Times bestseller The Birth of Venus; her second is In the Company of the Courtesan. She has two children and lives in London and Florence.
Interesting Link: Sarah Dunant discussing In The Company of the Courtesan.
This review was originally published in February 2006, and has been updated for the February 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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