Book Review: In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant

From the official blurb:

“It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia, a self-confessed womaniser and master of political corruption is now on the Papal throne as Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia, aged twenty-two, already thrice married and a pawn in her father’s plans, is discovering her own power. And then there is Cesare Borgia: brilliant, ruthless and increasingly unstable; it is his relationship with the diplomat Machiavelli which offers a master class on the dark arts of power and politics. What Machiavelli learns will go on to inform his great work of modern politics, The Prince.

But while the pope rails against old age and his son’s increasing maverick behavior it is Lucrezia who will become the Borgia survivor: taking on her enemies and creating her own place in history”.

 

When it comes to Renaissance Italy, there is hardly a family with more colourful associations attached to it than the Borgias. Likewise, when it comes to Renaissance Italy, there is hardly a writer with more colourful novels under her belt than Sarah Dunant; so, in a way, they were well-matched. In the Name of the Family is a concluding novel in a duology charting the rise and fall of this notorious dynasty. I opened the first one, Blood and Beauty, in the sweltering Italian summer of 2014, to be transported into the sweltering Italian summer of 1492; I’ve been entranced ever since.Have a look at what is definitely one of the best historical novels of 2017.

One of the best things about this duology is the fact that, unlike most Borgia-themed historical fiction (and certain TV Shows That Must Not Be Named), it sweeps the usual lurid gossip away. So, no brother-sister incest here, and no dramatic poisonings; and thank Eru for that, because the true story turns out to be far deeper, far more complex, and far more engrossing.

Every character, from the Borgia Pope himself to the young Machiavelli’s usually forgotten wife, is gloriously written, deliciously flawed and throbs with life as much as the figures on Renaissance frescoes. In particular, Lucrezia’s journey from a demure maiden, a pawn in her family’s games, to a powerful figure in her own right is portrayed believably and poignantly over the two novels; and, Feminist Killjoy that I am, it moved me the most.

Like many others, he had arrived at the Vatican court his ears ringing with gossip, expecting to find some vain vixen, racked by lust and cruelty. Yet within weeks his dispatches were filled with descriptions of her [Lucrezia’s] sweetness and modesty. It has taken him a little longer to discover the metal beneath the softness. But then it has been years since the state of Ferrara had its own duchess, and it’s possible he has forgotten the subterfuge of clever women, how stubborn their gentleness can be.

No less colourful is Dunant’s portrayal of the era itself; the divided, dangerous, brilliant Italy of the late Renaissance.

A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs for his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist, Niccolò [Machiavelli] thinks, not without a certain admiration. Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.

One can almost feel the scent of the orange groves in Ferrara and see the fog that drowns its streets, admire the frescoes on the walls of its summer villas – and be shocked into speechlessness by the blood on fresh December snow. There is enough bloodshed, conspiracies, treacheries and wars – but there is also a space for beauty, for art, for simple pleasures. And, against this backdrop, a truly Shakespearean story of a rise and fall is set.

Even if the Borgia family never interested you in the least, I would still recommend you to at least have a look at what is definitely one of the best historical novels of 2017. Though chronologically it takes place after Blood and Beauty, it can also be enjoyed on its own.

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