I first came across this author when a friend gave me her first novel, ‘Birth of Venus’, for Christmas. Straight away I loved her style of writing, but in that case found the story a little too tragic. Thankfully, ‘Courtesan’ has none of the same aching sense of sadness and wasted lives, being a bawdy, boisterous romp set in the high-class brothels of sixteenth century Venice.
Dunant’s writing is every bit as vivid in this as her previous book. The sights, sounds and smells of late Medieval Europe come bouncing off the page and the whole world is brought to life so skillfully that you never really see it as ‘history’, just as people living in their own world in their own way. The characters too are engaging; the book is told (mostly) from the point of view of Bucino, a dwarf who acts as pimp to his lady, Fiammetta. He’s slightly gruff and occasionally neurotic but his flaws give him a wonderfully human personality and he really is the driving force of the book. Other characters are seen through his eyes which perhaps distances them slightly from the reader but brings him to life even more.
My only real criticism of the book is the tense. It’s all written in first person present tense (‘I do this, then I say that’) which I found quite intrusive at times. It adds to the drama in the more dramatic scenes, but elsewhere it just seems to get in the way of the story. And there is one section, towards the beginning of the book where Bucino and Fiammetta arrive in Venice for the first time, which is suddenly told in third person omniscient, as though seen through the eyes of the city herself. That really did jolt me outside the story, and the device is never repeated. It would perhaps have been better to use the same style at the beginning of each new section, to show that it was there to achieve a specific effect, rather than just being a mistake.
However, that’s a small quibble in a very entertaining and informative book. You only have to look at the impressive bibliography at the end to see that Dunant has done simply heaps of research and it really shows. Not that she ever drops lumps of factual information into the narrative in the way some writers do – it’s more just that she uses the information to build up an entirely convincing, warm, and realistic backdrop to an entertaining story.