Reviewed by E. B. Heath
A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a gobbet of offal near the wheel of a cart. . . . Scavenging opportunist, Niccolò thinks, not without a certain admiration. Stick a feathered hat on him and give him a sword and you’ve got half the country.
No doubt readers familiar with Sarah Dunant’s work have already ordered and read her latest historical novel. And with good reason, her body of work is impressive – ranging from television, radio and print. Her eleven novels in two differing genres – thriller and historical fiction – enjoy popular appeal while dealing with real issues. However, for those new to this skilful author, please know that transportation into the fascinating world of early sixteenth century Italy will require no effort beyond turning the pages of In the Name of the Family.
Dunant does not waste time; in the prologue she seamlessly stitches the reader into the social and political patchwork of Renaissance Italy. We amble along Via Guicciardini, Florence, in the company of Niccolò Machiavelli. Niccolò, is on his way to work at the Palazzo della Signoria, where the business of governing Florence takes place. He is secretary to the Council of Ten for Liberty and Peace, and as such mulls over the condition of Italy, the collage of family-owned city-states, Spain’s control in the south, and the influence of France to the north. Of most concern is the middle of Italy, Rome, and the predatory Borgia family.
Rodrigo Borgia has become Pope Alexander VI, and along with his merciless son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia, he is building the Borgia dynasty. It is through the individual perspectives of these actors, as they love, hate, eat, scheme, and deal with disease that we are presented with a deeper understanding of this era. Dunant abandons historical stereotypes; her characters are complicated. The ‘evil harlot’ image normally attributed to Lucrezia Borgia is ditched. She is seen as courageous, cleverly manoeuvring through her precarious and often sad life. She must weaponise her charm in order to survive.
Cesare Borgia is charmer, murderer, marauder, lover, and, ultimately, mad. Machiavelli compares him with the great Roman generals he has studied in Livy since he was thirteen year old.
When it comes to their own leader, there is nothing but the fiercest loyalty. ‘He’s a proper soldier. Does everything we do, and more. If we don’t eat or drink or piss, then neither does he. He’s as fast in the saddle as any man and he never sleeps.’
Cesare loves war, he lives for it, and even when almost dying from the pox he raves about it.
I tell you, war is like dancing. No, no, not dancing. No. More like jumping from one moving horse to another. I used to do it often, you know. . . . To dare. To put your hand up underneath Fortune’s skirts and play with her till she is dripping for you. What? Does my soldier’s language upset the priest in you?’
It is this man, Dunant suggests, that Machiavelli uses as a template for his most celebrated political study The Prince.
Dunant uses finely tuned details to absorb the reader into the setting with the effect of energizing the reality, rather than bogging down the narrative. It is tempting to compare In the Name of the Family with Hilary Mantel’s account of Tudor England in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s nuanced humour seems to soften the narrative and actors. Whereas Dunant’s plot is overriding, it has to be, there is so much relentless action to get through. The Borgias are as exhausting as they are fascinating.
Sarah Dunant’s talent is to splice and dice facts into great historical fiction to educate and entertain in equal part. The reader is immersed in, becomes part of Renaissance Italy. What is not clear is how to get back? Perhaps stay and read another Dunant novel.
By Sarah Dunant
Virago Press/Hachette Australia
Hardback ISBN 978-1-84408-746-8
C-format ISBN 978-1-84408-764-8