Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato
A break from my STPFD Young Writer of the Year Award writing today, having finished the five books, we’ve had our judgely huddle and chosen a Shadow Judges’ winner which will be announced on the 29th.
I’m a big fan of Marina Fiorato’s historical novels, having read most of her output from her first, The Glassblower of Murano, reviewed here. Most of her novels have been set in Italy, but with her previous one The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh, one of the few I’ve yet to read, she moved from Italy to England, which is where she starts with Crimson and Bone, although it does end in Italy this time. It begins:
They called it the Bridge of Sighs, because it barely passed a night without a suicide. That night was no different.
We’re not in Venice with the original Bridge of Sighs, that will come later. We begin on Waterloo Bridge, nicknamed for the other, it’s January 1853. Annie Stride, a young and newly homeless prostitute found she was pregnant, and believes that taking her own life is the only answer.
For an infinite moment she tipped and fell – then a hand took her arm, hard, and pulled her back. Her battered boots slipped on the parapet and she would have fallen anyway had she note been lifted bodily down and set to her feet. A face below a smart topper looked earnestly into hers. She could see nothing but blobs for eyes, a smear for a mouth.
‘Madam,’ said the mouth. ‘What are you about? Such a desperate action!’
She didn’t think she had ever been called madam in the whole course of her life.
Her rescuer asks her to give him an hour to persuade her. He takes her to the Royal Academy to show her a painting. It is of the river near the houses of Parliament and a drowned girl is half in, half out of the water. The girl is Mary Jane, Annie’s former partner who died a few months ago. The painting is titled The Bridge of Sighs, by one Francis Maybrick Gill.
Annie’s rescuer is the artist himself. He explains how he was passing as they fished Annie from the river. Annie is convinced, and lets him take her home. What follows is a Pygmalion style story Annie becomes Francis’s muse. Francis sets about educating Annie and painting her, showing her off in person as well as in on canvas at an exhibition of his work in London in which she poses as fallen women throughout history.
The book’s title refers to Crimson – the colour symbolic of fallen women, and bone – literarlly ground into powder to make white paint. However, Francis turns out to have some strange obsessions, not least taxidermy and a passion for camellias – a flower whose scent brings back memories of Annie’s dead partner in crime, Mary Jane…
Gradually, we find out about Francis growing up at Holkham Hall, (a stately home) in Norfolk, coincidentally close to where Annie grew up and ran away from. We also find out what happened to Mary Jane. Once they relocate to Tuscany and then Venice, the revelations and twists come thick and fast. Fiorato has crafted a page-turning Victorian thriller with this novel. I really couldn’t put it down. Brilliant stuff!
Elaine also loved it too!
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Marina Fiorato, Crimson and Bone, Hodder & Stoughton, May 2017. Hardback, 320 pages.