Revenge, 12th century-style
"Revenge of the Rose," Nicole Galland, William Morrow. 2006. 464 pages. $25.95.
Having loved "The Fool's Tale" by Nicole Galland, I was eager to read her second novel "Revenge of the Rose," newly published by Harper Collins. It proved to be just as witty, well-written, and entertaining as I expected, and I can hardly wait for her next book.
"Revenge of the Rose" is set in the 12th-century court of Konrad, fictional Holy Roman Emperor. They are enjoying a summer idyll at Koenigsbourg Castle in the hills of Burgundy along the River Rhine. There is plenty of everything expected of a historical novel - a sense of the medieval period in which the novel is set, descriptions of the castle's architecture, the clothing and jewelry, the rituals of court etiquette, feasts and jousts, armor and heraldry, characters who are believable albeit fictional.
The main characters, based loosely on characters of the same name from "The Romance of the Rose," a 13th-century French poem by Guillaume de Lorris are Konrad (the Emperor), Willem Silvan of Dole (Guillaume, the modest and valiant Knight) his beautiful, virtuous, and clever sister Lienor, Jouglet (Konrad's "jongleur, a minstrel, a minnesinger, and a troubadour") and Erec (Willem's squire).
These are the "good guys." There are deliciously evil "bad guys" as well, the Emperor's brother Paul who reminds me of the Grinch, creeping around the castle looking for perversion, and Count Alphonse of Burgundy who seems to devote his life to marrying off his daughter Imogen to the most beneficial suitor and manipulating said suitors along with their possessions and demesnes.
When Nicole read the original poem she wondered why the plot happened as it did; there seemed to be no explanation for the characters' motives, so she set about making them up. Jouglet is definitely the backstage plotter, piquing Konrad's interest in bringing Willem and Lienor to court, but for what purpose? What's in it for him?
As I am trying to write this review, I keep coming up with phrases in my mind like "setting the scene" and "sparking dialogue." I am reminded that the author's background is in theater. It is apparent throughout the novel. The story begins with a description of Koenigsbourg Castle and its grounds, prepared for an annual summer bacchanalia, where prostitutes dress as royal ladies for the amusement of the men. The chapter is called "Prologue" [a passage introducing key elements of all that follows] and each of the chapters is similarly titled.
"This was a palace still in the making. The courtyard walls were unfinished (but already over-decorated), and the kitchen was conveniently in working order. There were rough wooden huts for the workmen and their tools, but such men had been removed from the site for this fortnight, and no other permanent structures yet stood. One end of the yard, where the women's pavilion was staked, was not even enclosed yet. Here the hill they were on rose so steeply above them, it was nearly a wooded cliff, and His Majesty liked the aesthetic of this: nature peeking timidly into what would soon be a magnificent, artificial world, the most sumptuous and glittering of his many glittering courts. In the meantime, with the necessary tents and pavilions, it provided the illusion of an idyll, and illusions were always useful to a monarch."
I can picture it all in layers of scrim and broadly painted brushstrokes on hanging canvas backdrops. I had described the book in a conversation with a friend as having the ambiguities and mysteries of a good painting. A painting should not tell all its secrets on the surface; neither should a novel. There are layers to be discovered throughout, of both characters and plot. That is one of the benefits of reviewing a book, taking the time to read it through twice at least to savor its delights.
In many ways, "Revenge of the Rose" is as much based on illusions as Konrad's castle-in-the-making. At her talk and book signing at the Bunch of Grapes last weekend, the author referred to herself as writing "in a very modern voice." Her characters weave back and forth in spirit between the Middle Ages and the 21st century. Lienor is certainly a modern heroine in many ways. And although the concepts of pure courtly adoration and its chivalric hierarchies are archaic to us, they are certainly able to produce characters that stir our imaginations. I suppose that human beings share passions and basic sensibilities, and are ageless. There is a difference in knowledge and the breadth of world view, but our essential humanness with its resulting loves, hates, ambitions, goodness or evil, are qualities that transcend one's historical period. And they have consistently made the plots of novels.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I will ask you to trust my judgment. If you like a good story, well-plotted and well-written, if you like being transported in time, and if you like to learn a bit about history while being entertained, I promise that you will find this book an enjoyable one.
Hermine Hull is the West Tisbury correspondent for The Times.