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What is seen cannot be unseen.

A few chapters into Blood and Beauty: A Novel About the Borgias and I started to wonder why I got this novel in the first place. My main issue was how it is all written in the present tense. It is rare that I read a novel written in this style, although I gather it isn’t exactly uncommon. It seems a particularly-jarring way to write historical fiction although, again, that seems to be something that is gaining ground in recent years. I find it immensely distracting. That sense diminishes the more I acclimatize myself to the book, but it never really goes away. Whenever a character reflects on a past event (written in past tense) and then returns to the present, the shock of the present tense writing once again disorients me.

Wondering, I took a look at the Amazon reader-reviews, to see if I was going to continue to find the work difficult to read as I read more. The content of one of those reviews grabbed me. The reviewer, essentially, says that the author seems to have really wanted to write a non-fiction work but, given her reputation as a novelist, was unable to stray to far from her home ground. At the time, I hadn’t made it far enough into the book to know if that assessment is accurate. I’m still not sure, although now that I’ve read the suggestion I’m not sure that I can fairly evaluate the claim. To the extent that I try to think about it, I can only consider the terms set out by that one review.

Another reason I have difficulty following the book is that I’m trying to read it and watch Borgia at the same time. I mix plot points between the two, not only because I’m trying to follow both at the same time, but because they both seems to have used very similar, if not the same, source material. The other night I watched and then read as Cesare returned to Rome. Problem is, the two events are years apart (even in Borgia‘s compressed narrative). I was in for a shock when Juan Borgia made an appearance in the book, several episodes beyond when he was murdered in the show. Working with multiple versions of the same story is probably not the smartest way to go about this.

Which brings up another question. We are dealing with a historical subject, whatever fictional embellishments are added, the central narrative is fixed. This book was published in the midst of a minor Borgia saturation. Beyond that, we have centuries of exposition on the Borgia story. When I read this, it is within the context of already (and recently) having watched the very same scenes in The Borgias and Borgia. While some will come to Blood and Beauty fresh, I would think most would have arrived here via television, novel, film, or perhaps opera. Inevitably, this would shape how one ingests this novel, making it difficult to judge it on its own merits.

Author Sarah Dunant’s “thing” is history from a woman’s perspective. Her previous works focus on female main characters. I’ve read in reviews that this should be the focus of Borgia, although I don’t get that focus through reading the book. Dunant has also said that her goal in writing the novel was to separate the fact from the politically-induced rumor – also a noble pursuit. I suppose it is up to the reader to weigh how well her research fares against the other versions of history that are out there. It also goes some way in explaining the release of a Borgia-based novel right in the midst of a Borgia wave. Perhaps she is providing some counterpoint to what she didn’t like seeing on the TV.

With Borgia removed from streaming, I’ll have to satisfy my lust for things-Borgia with this book and its sequels. That is, as long as I am able to soldier on through this present-tense prose.