I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really read YA, and it’s not like my last foray into it was… without regret. But I had Blood, Water, Paint recommended to me by someone whose taste I trust, and it was in verse rather than prose and… I really like Artemisia Gentileschi. I am capable of going outside my comfort zone, for the right incentives of cool historical lady artists.
As it turns out, this one was worth it, but I don’t think this says anything about my feelings on YA as a whole*. Some books, the theme/content/idea is good enough that it’s worth powering through stuff that maybe isn’t for you. And in this case, putting the whole thing in verse did actually deal with a lot of my usual issues with YA, as did the focus on a single historical figure and a historical narrative.
But that’s by the by. I liked it, regardless of what subgenre it’s in.
If you don’t know about Artemisia Gentileschi, a) you should, she’s great and b) go fix that and read up about her. (Ignore this paragraph if you want to read the book without me spoiling it with details of her life – I don’t think it matters as I knew it all going in, but ymmv). She was born in 1593, the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a Tuscan painter, and was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She painted some amazing, vivid and intensely emotional scenes, and her focus is often on female figures and their suffering, making them convincing and human in a way often not managed by her contemporaries. Her most famous works are probably Susanna and the Elders and Judith Slaying Holofernes (both biblical stories focussing on women who suffered through hardship and ultimately prevailed). She was also, as a young woman, raped by an artist associating with her father, and was for a long time notable for her participation in his trial and ultimate conviction – as part of which she underwent torture with thumbscrews to verify her testimony. As such, somewhat trigger warning for the book for vivid description/reflection on rape, and less vivid description of physical torture.
But you can see from that why I’d want to read a novel about her? As a woman not just trying but succeeding with solid success to be an artist in the early 1600s, that’s just… wow. And doubly so one whose work I suspect if you saw it would be somewhat familiar. We don’t have as many stories we should of female historical success, and it’s great to embrace the ones that do survive. Even if, as this one is, it’s tainted with a very familiar female story of suffering.
The novel focusses on her early life, before she left for Florence, and her growth as an artist rather than just her father’s apprentice. In that at least, it is very YA – it looks at her life as a young adult, and deals with themes of parent-child relationships and living in the shadow of expectations. But the style of the verse also drags it well away from that – it’s a deeply introspective, thoughtful book, full of observation and details, trying to show not just in description but in form the identity of Gentileschi as an artist. And yet, it’s also very pared down verse. It’s simple, short and sectioned off, highly impactful but brief each time. It makes it a quick – albeit slightly harrowing – book to read, and I think that’s somewhat from necessity. You couldn’t drag a whole lifetime out like this, it would be too much, too heavy, too constant in tone. But by focussing it on this particular arc of her life – and indeed a very heavy and dramatic one – it feels entirely sensible to keep the tone as it is, because it matches the subject matter.
And there are moments of variation – we split off into prose occasionally for reflections on her dead mother – but they are few and far between, and definitely serve only as brief contrasts, rather than a substantial section of the book.
Again because of the short, impactful verse format, and the intensely autobiographical way it’s written, we see only Gentileschi herself in any real depth. Her father and Tassi are somewhat caricatured, because they’re seen only in how they relate to her, never any depth of their own. But she gets a rich, complex inner life. And I’m cool with it. We’re centring the narrative of a woman in the 1600s, as well as the narrative of the victim of a crime. Exclude everyone else, I’m fine with this. It’s not something that always works, but here, where we want a young woman’s voice to carry through over the noise of men in power trying to silence here, it’s not just good but right, I think.
It does also feel very much like an authentically portrayed young woman, which is nice. She feels very real, with real, teenage emotions.
And I don’t know how historically accurate it is to have that be so parallel to modern teenagers. I also don’t know how historically accurate the details of the book are. The broad strokes? Yep, all good. Those bits I know. But with historical novels, there will always be details the author simply cannot know, and you have to rely on them filling them in in a way that feels like it works, rather than necessarily being scrupulously researched accuracy for every. single. thing. Some research. Basic accuracy, especially on things we can and do know. But you need to know where to draw the line and just make it a good story – which it definitely feels like McCullough has. I never felt unsure of how accurate it was, which is good enough for me on this one**.
It captured the feel of what I wanted, and the feel of being inside the mind of a woman I find fascinating. I couldn’t cope with every novel being like this, but every now and then? It was lovely. The writing was great, the character compelling and the story and subject matter stuff I was already primed to be engaged with. Very definitely worth it for the feminist history stuff.
*I keep tangentially referring to this, so maybe I should just do a post about it? I have a lot of opinions.
**Yes I know if it were a book about Romans I’d be singing an entirely different song here but I’m just a massive hypocrite, ok?