House of Names by Colm Toíbín
In updating the classic story, the award-winning Irish writer Colm Toíbín has retained the original setting (although this is only lightly sketched) but downplayed the contribution of the supernatural to focus on the individual psychology of his characters. For me, not generally drawn to crime fiction, this made for a page-turning read. House of Names is a study of a paranoid state as chilling as the contemporary North Korea, and no doubt other sad societies, where anyone can be sacrificed on a whim. It’s a reminder (although who will listen?) that we can’t overcome violence through more violence and that, if we choose to forget, rather than learning from, our mistakes, we’re compelled to repeat them. It’s also a brilliant study of the anxieties of leadership, and especially middle management, where, caught between the dictates of those above (shareholders, board, gods) and the demands of those below in the hierarchy, genuine power seems unattainable. Thanks to the publishers, Viking Penguin, for my review copy.
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant
At the start of the novel, Lucrezia travels with her ladies in waiting to her third arranged marriage, overnighting at various castles and palaces along the way, where she charms all who meet her. Her first marriage, at age thirteen, was annulled when it became less convenient to the Borgia dynasty. Her second, into the house of Naples to cement the Spanish alliance, ended after Cesare switched sides and had her husband bumped off. Who wouldn’t pity Lucrezia, unusually for the times, actually in love with her husband, leaving behind her baby son to make heirs for the d’Este family? Who wouldn’t admire her capacity to survive malaria, stillbirth and syphilis, the impact of the latter on aristocratic women as a result of their husbands’ whoring, at that time unacknowledged?
The first of Sarah Dunant’s novels I read, Sacred Hearts, was a fascinating tale of doomed love against the background of a renaissance convent, and I particularly enjoyed the chapters in In the Name of the Family where Lucrezia stays in a convent to convalesce. While she admirably covers the “masculine” blood and guts of politics, warring and whoring, what I loved about this book was the reclaiming of women’s history from a feminist perspective. Thanks to Virago for my review copy.