Set in 16th century Italy The Ornatrix ~ or dresser - is a glittering gem of a novel that tells the story of Flavia ~ a young girl who when first introduced works in her father’s dye shop, mixing vats of chemicals for colouring wool and leather.
In the city everyone wanted to paint themselves brighter than their neighbours. They gorged on colour.
This is a novel that oozes with colour, and yet it is also seething with the darkness that lies beneath that veneer ~ a veneer as concealing as the veils that Flavia is forced to wear whenever she’s in public, to spare the shame her mother feels and hide the birthmark on her face which takes the shape of a bird in flight.
When, in rage of jealousy, Flavia does something that then wrecks her sister’s wedding day, that symbol of flight becomes one of fact, with our heroine then sent away to live within a convent’s walls. There she meets Ghostanza, once a Venetian courtesan, and now an aging widow, also rejected by her family. Neither one of them is to be a nun. They are simply hidden away from the world, though Ghostanza continues every day to dress herself in sumptuous gowns, to pluck the hair of her forehead and brows, to apply cosmetic potions and paints to preserve her illusion of perfect youth - for which she needs an ornatrix.
The dressing table is La Perfetta’s altar. Pots and brushes instead of the gospel and the cross. She must not anger her high priestess.
‘Heaven is beauty,’ she says. ‘Ugliness is hell.’
Flavia now finds herself immersed in the alchemy of the paints which she helps Ghostanza to concoct, often using secret recipes. And, thinking of such potions now, I particularly liked the book’s motif of sharing historical beauty tips in the form of advice or recipes, some of which read like witches' spells ...
HOW WARTS MAY BE TAKEN AWAY
There is a kind of beetle that is oily, in summer you shall find it in dust and sand. If you rub that on the warts, they will be perfectly gone, and not be seen.
Many things are unseen in this novel, hidden by malice or artifice. But, just as the devious courtesan debrides her flesh to make it smooth, she slowly unmasks her own dark past, doing so as fresh white lead is plastered across her face each day ~ and slowly rots the flesh away. The price for outward beauty being bought at the risk of ruin.
That ruin is inevitable, and as each page is turned the threatening atmosphere within the book is simmering with tension, with greed, with lust and jealousy, and the lies concealing bitter truths ~ all of which then builds until a shocking climax is revealed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its themes of masks, of truths and lies, of what we see - and what we don’t. It will certainly appeal to fans of Sarah Dunant, and Michelle Lovric, both of whom have written historical novels which are also set in Italy, and which also raise issues related to female beauty and enslavement.
The Ornatrix will be released on 14 July 2016. It is published by Duckworth.