Midnight Blue / Simone van der Vlugt; translated from the Dutch by Jenny Watson.
London: Harper, c2017.
If you like historicals set in the Netherlands, something like The Girl With the Pearl Earring, you will probably also really enjoy this novel centred on the discovery and production of Delft Blue china.
This is the first of Van der Vlugt's three historical novels to be translated into English, and I hope the others will soon follow. It's a well-written, historically dense and yet character-driven story of a young woman's journey from young widowhood to the full use of her talents and drive as a mature and happy woman.
Catrin is 25 when her older, abusive husband dies, in the spring of 1654. The other residents of her small village whisper that she had a hand in his passing; she's always been a little suspect because of her artistic tendencies anyhow. She decides very quickly that she will leave the village, finding a housekeeping job in Amsterdam and moving on despite disapproval for such a forward decision.
But her past follows her and so she must move on, and on. She ends up encountering Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as other minor artists, who encourage her with kind words. She eventually finds herself in Delft, where she gets a job as a pottery painter. The pottery saves her; not only is it amenable work, and an income, but there she makes friends who help her through the crisis when it comes.
Catrin is a no-nonsense woman who works hard but always has a view to art and beauty as well. She is forthright and honest, even while hiding secrets from her past that could catch her up in quite a final manner. I enjoyed hearing this story from her perspective -- some of the characters who show up in this tale are real names from history, and an afterword tells us some of the details about what happened after this story ends. The production of Delft Blue continued, and there are trails to follow if you are interested in the real-life characters.
But as a novel, aside from the historical facts included, this stands up very well. Catrin is a complex and thoughtful character, and there are many discussions about the purpose of art, the quandries of guilt and responsibility, the reality of love and loss and much more. There is enough suspense and activity in her story to keep a reader focused and wondering what the outcome is going to look like. The writing style is quiet and restrained even when dealing with tragic accidents like the Delft Thunderclap, or the recurrence of the plague. Despite some of the darker themes, it's actually quite a light and engaging read.
It's a seamless mix of fact and fiction - with a gorgeous cover - and I read it straight through.