- a historical novel (medieval)
- an interesting geographical setting (Tuscany)
- an enticing theme (a female painter who must conceal her gender to be allowed to practise her art)
Knowing that the author, Carol Cram, is a 21st century Canadian and an established writer of non-fiction, I was intrigued to see how she coped with the challenge of writing such a story, which would require extensive research to be convincing, and a different set of writing skills to deliver it.
The Artistic Challenge
I was pleased to discover Cram was more than up to the task. She clearly has the facts at her fingertips and the skill to weave them unobtrusively into a compelling narrative. From the first page, she creates a strong sense of an era of extremes. This society combined reverence for great art and high religion with disdain and disregard for the common man. Higher social classes thought nothing of striking round the head a peasant who deigned to approach them in the street, for example. Yet even the nobility were not immune from the harsh realities of medieval daily life – rampant rats all around, and the easy spread of terrifying diseases which pay no heed to social class.
A Harsh Society
Amidst this fascinating setting, the author has created Sofia, a likable, feisty heroine who is determined to work as an artist, a profession from which women were banned. Driven by her inborn artistic talent, which has been honed by her painter father, she takes enormous risks to pursue her dream. Following her journey is fascinating for the 21st century reader, particularly for women who like to paint! It made me wonder how I might feel if raised in a society that did not allow me to practise my chosen art – writing – and remember that there are millions of women even in the 21st century for whom that holds true.
Cram is careful never to idealise Sofia’s situation, nor does she give in to temptation to turn the story into a romance with a happy ending. Without wishing to spoil the plot, the ending is brave, unpredictable, appropriate and strangely satisying.
All in all, this is an intelligent, informed and thought-provoking novel. I hope there will be more of such quality to come from this promising new novelist. I passed my paperback on to my historian cousin to enjoy – she’s a professional historian and archivist who also loves to paint – and I’ll be buying more copies for friends and relations.
For more information about Carol Cram, check out her website: www.carolcram.com