Past Masters – Sarah Dunant

I haven’t done one of these blog posts in a while, so if you’re new to Girl, Reading this is an occasional series of articles in which I highlight my favourite authors of historical fiction.  Today I’m spreading the love for a novelist who knows how to get inside her characters’ heads like no other: the fabulous Sarah Dunant.

Which historical period does she write about?

She’s written some thrillers as well as historical fiction, but the novels for which she’s best known – and the ones that I particularly love – are set in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.  This is the world of the Borgias and the Medici, a world where the religious, the profane and the political all intertwine in a brutal, sensual melting pot of humanity.

Why should I read her?

If like me you’re already fascinated by Renaissance Italy then you’ll be hard pushed to find another author whose fiction engages with the era so well.  I’ve read a number of novels set in this period and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but Sarah Dunant’s books are a cut above the rest.  What I find so fascinating about this setting, and what the author captures so well, is the fact that squalor and opulence, deprivation and extravagance rubbed right up against each other in a slightly bizarre society reminiscent at times of a surreal puppet show.  Yet behind the hedonism of the Borgias, the obscene wealth of the Medici and the hysteria-inducing religious extremism of Savonarola and his followers, it was also a time when intellectualism was bursting forth and unleashing new philosophies and creative expression on the generations to come.  In Dunant’s novels we experience in a very tangible way what it must have been like to live – or to survive – in a time such as this, in particular what life was like for women.  She creates some exceptionally strong female characters, some real and some imagined.  In “Blood and Beauty” we have a reimagining of Lucrezia Borgia, possibly the most famous member of this notorious family; in “Sacred Hearts” she gives us an insight into the life of a woman on a much more modest scale in the shape of Serafina, an unfortunate girl who has suffered the fate common to many women of the time of being forced into a convent.  All the characters truly become flesh and blood, and you feel every joy and every agony alongside them.

Which book should I start with?

I loved “Blood and Beauty” – apparently the story is going to be continued in a second novel of unknown publication date (if anyone has any news on it please feel free to comment below!) but it’s still a wonderful book and very much worth reading even if there’s no follow-on as yet.  Otherwise I’d go for “The Birth of Venus”, which has one of my favourite leading ladies of any novel I’ve ever read.

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