Thursday, January 9, 2014

Staff Pick - Black Venus by James MacManus Paris in the mid nineteenth century is the setting for James MacManus' historical novel Black Venus (M) which explores Charles Baudelaire's relationship with Haitian singer Jeanne Duval. Duval was born in Haiti, child of a slave and a French plantation owner who fled the island after the revolution. Jeanne Duval clung to her French roots, making it her live long quest to find her father, confident that he was a kindly man who would take interest in her. She used her singing ability as a means to escape Haiti and made her way to Paris where she came to the attention of poet Charles Baudelaire.

James MacManus
Baudelaire became instantly enraptured with Jeanne Duval and she was to inspire his poetry for the next twenty years. Theirs was a passionate but tumultuous relationship marred by addiction, illness and poverty. Central to MacManus' story is the 1857 obscenity trial in which Baudelaire defends his most famous work - Les fleurs du mal. Baudelaire is trapped between two women - his mother who has economic control of his life and demands that he make safe and conventional choices and his mistress. MacManus paints a more sympathetic portrait of Duval, who is often portrayed as grasping and destructive. His Duval, while certainly demanding of clothes and creature comforts and controlling Baudelaire sexually and with opium, is also a woman who had been cast out into a cruel world with only her wits and her body for survival.

Black Venus is a dark story, evocative of the gritty world occupied by artists and poets in nineteenth century Paris. Another is Robin Oliveira's I Always Loved You (M).
" A novel of the romance of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas from the author of My Name Is Mary Sutter The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy. But when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary's determination wavers. Her father begs her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it's too late. Her sister is falling mysteriously ill. Worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever." publisher

Jeanne Duval is also a character is Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads (M). "When three Caribbean slave women gather one night to bury a stillborn baby, their collected mournings braid into a powerful calling, and a deity is born. So begins the epic journey of a spirit who, in a desperate bid to discover her own nature and identity, defies the limitations of time and place to inhabit the minds of living women throughout history. From Jeanne Duval, the seductive black mistress of 19th-century bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire, to a Nubian prostitute on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 300 A.D., the spirit gathers the power and the wisdom of the ages, only to come full circle on the island of St. Dominque. There, she is reunited with the very women who gave her life, and who still struggle to survive under the tyranny of brutal masters." Discover

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