Thursday, 18 May 2017

Review: 'In the Name of the Family' by Sarah Dunant

I am a history fanatic so any novel which tackles a major period in history or an infamous family or a momentous battle or really anything that impacted history is bound to have me excited. So when I saw In the Name of the Family, a novel dedicated to 'Machiavelli & the Borgias' I was already on the edge of my seat. They are some of the most fascinating people to have lived in Italy, which says a lot, and yet they were still largely strangers to me. So I was overjoyed when I got approved for In the Name of the Family and I was fascinated once I started reading. Thanks to Little Brown, Virago and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 02/03/2017
Publisher: Little Brown; Virago

In the Name of the Family - as Blood and Beauty did before - holds up a mirror to a turbulent moment of history, sweeping aside the myths to bring alive the real Borgia family; complicated, brutal, passionate and glorious. Here is a thrilling exploration of the House of Borgia's doomed years, in the company of a young diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.

It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia, a self-confessed womaniser and master of political corruption is now on the Papal throne as Alexander VI. His daughter Lucrezia, aged twenty-two, already thrice married and a pawn in her father's plans, is discovering her own power. And then there is Cesare Borgia: brilliant, ruthless and increasingly unstable; it is his relationship with the diplomat Machiavelli which offers a master class on the dark arts of power and politics. What Machiavelli learns will go on to inform his great work of modern politics, The Prince.
But while the pope rails against old age and his son's increasing maverick behavior it is Lucrezia who will become the Borgia survivor: taking on her enemies and creating her own place in history.
Conjuring up the past in all its complexity, horror and pleasures, In The Name of the Family confirms Sarah Dunant's place as the leading novelist of the Renaissance and one of the most acclaimed historical fiction writers of our age.
History is a fascinating topic because it always changes. This might sound fallacious but history is not as set a thing as many of us think or hope. History is written by the winners, by the survivors, by those with the loudest voice, and as such we often have to reconsider what we know when a new viewpoint comes to light. The revision of history is an ongoing and important cause, which often gives a voice to those who were always silenced. Historical Fiction has a very interesting role in that process, since it allows authors and readers to take a different kind of look at history, one that is perhaps not entirely factual but often very human. What kind of a man could Cromwell have been? What was it like aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff? What kind of scars did the Yugoslav wars leave on a young girl? Historical fiction allows us modern people to see history as human, as something both destined and accidental, both flawed and sublime. and this is exactly what Sarah Dunant does in In the Name of the Family.

Dunant tackles some major historical figures in this novel about whom a lot has been written, not just academically but also in popular culture. The Borgias have been immortalised in a TV show as well as in countless novels and films. There is Rodrigo Borgia, or Alexander VI, the pope who flouted the celibacy rules and happily fathered children throughout his reign. There is Cesare Borgia, whose brutality and cunning in warfare blew away all of his contemporaries. There is Lucrezia Borgia, so beautiful she must of course have slept with half of Italy, including her own family. The way this family has been both idolized and vilified goes back centuries, but Dunant takes a surprisingly fresh and insightful look at this family, especially Lucrezia. History is notoriously unfair to women, both silencing them and loudly decrying them. In In the Name of the Family Dunant attempts to undo some of the prejudices thrown at the Borgia family, without sugarcoating their behaviour. Rather, she lets a humanity shine through that brings the Borgias to life as human beings with conflicting loyalties, dreams, hopes and fears. She does the same for Machiavelli, who has become not only an adjective but also a larger-than-life politician and historian. Meticulously researched, In the Name of the Family both stick to the script and deviates where Dunant finds potential for something more. She doesn't give us a rigid history, but rather acknowledges that
'history is only and always the story of human nature in action, and that in an imperfect world, men who set out to make their mark must work with what is, rather than what they might like it to be.'
Dunant's writing style took me a few chapters to get used to, but before I knew it I was hooked. Historical fiction is tricky because an author has to find a balance between remaining historically accurate and yet not losing the fluidity and imagination of fiction. Switching between the viewpoints of her four main characters, and a few fascinating side characters, Dunant manages to constantly retain a sense of urgency and immediacy. The reader knows more than any of the characters in the book since they are privy to everyone's thoughts. The novel flits across Renaissance Italy with a swiftness that never feels rushed. There are a whole number of references, key dates, key battles and key places which are fed into the narrative in a very natural way. In the Name of the Family never feels cluttered, which reminds of Umberto Eco's brilliant historical novels. The author's, both Eco and Dunant's. obvious comfort within their chosen time period makes these types of historical novels feel like a breeze. I personally cannot wait to read more of Dunant's historical fiction. First on the list is Blood & Beauty: The Borgias which, as the title makes clear, is another epic novel about the Borgias. Also, this novel comes with an extensive bibliography which will make the heart of any history-nerd beat faster. I myself have already highlighted a number of books I want to try.

I give this novel

4 Universes!

Once you get into In the Name of the Family, the novel doesn't let you go. With history unfolding as rapidly as it does, with the stakes as high as they are, you won't want to put this novel down. And once it is finished you'll have gained a whole new appreciation for the Borgias. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Italian and European history.

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