Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

The art of living…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

titians-boatmanIt is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

titian_-_man_with_the_blue_sleeve_-_wga22932

Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.

Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

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42 thoughts on “Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

  1. This does sound like a very beautiful and unusual book, although perhaps not quite right for me. A lovely review and I do wish Blake all the very best with it, it certainly seems to have an original quality about it!

    • It is! Yes, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it all linking through art – I thought it might be a bit “arty” but it’s not at all – much more about the people than the art, really…

  2. Mmm, sounds a bit like Possession, which I loved, but with an art strand rather than a literary strand. And yes, I thought the name Victoria Blake sounded familiar! Love her on Twitter and blog, so an added incentive to check out this book.

    • I haven’t read Possession – one day! But yes, the art strand worked well – it’s not overdone, just enough to link the stories and provide connections. I’d read one of Vicky’s non-fiction books before, Mrs Maybrick, so I already knew she could write – but it was good to see how her style translated to fiction.

  3. Oh, this does sound good, FictionFan! I do like strands of past and present being woven together like that. And the settings….. 🙂 – I’m glad to hear the writing style is appealing, too; to me, that’s one of the keys to pulling story strands together that might otherwise be too disjointed. Glad you enjoyed this.

    • Yes, it was an interesting concept to link the past and present sections through Titian’s paintings, and it works well. I already knew Vicky writes well from having read her non-fiction book on Florence Maybrick, but good factual writing doesn’t always translate to good fiction writing – happily, it does in this case! 🙂

    • There is some sadness in it and it’s quite an emotional read, but overall the feeling is quite uplifting – a kind of celebration of love and connections, without being at all soppy or romantic. Good stuff! 🙂

    • Indeed it is!! And refreshing to read a book that doesn’t feel it has to rely on dramatic twists to hold the reader’s interest – just excellent characterisation and quality writing.

  4. While I wish Victoria the best with her book, it doesn’t sound right for me. You, FF, have done another outstanding job reviewing it — very fair and impartial — and I thank you for bringing this one to my attention.

    • The stuff about the paintings is done very well – not at all “arty” if you know what I mean. I hate when writers get all pretentious about art (or literature) but here it’s very accessible, and interesting to see the links working themselves out…

    • Thank you, Laila! 😀 Yes, it was interesting to see how all the sections, past and present, were linked via Titian’s art – it could have felt a bit contrived if it hadn’t been handled well, but fortunately it was! There is some sadness in it, but overall I found it quite an uplifting read – in fact, I found it refreshing that she didn’t see the need to torture her characters too much, and much more credible too!

    • I think you’d enjoy this, Cleo, and like me you already know Vicky can write! Yes, I can cope with a slow start too so long as there’s something to keep my interest, and in this case the reason it took a bit of time was just to introduce the various characters and settings, all of which is done very well and quickly had me wanting to know what happened to them all… 🙂

    • Yes, indeed! And in this one, there are quite a few people to introduce and three separate settings, so it was better that she took her time and did that in a way that meant I wanted to know more about each of their stories… good stuff! 🙂

  5. Not at all related to your review (which was great) – I’m intrigued by your use of the phrase ‘in truth’ where I would use ‘to be frank’ or ‘to be honest.’ It sounds slightly archaic to me…is it often used over there?

    • Interesting question! I don’t really know, but I am pretty archaic so it’s perfectly possible! 😉 I’d also say “to be honest” or “to be frank” and yes, I think you’re probably right that they’re more commonly used. I’m intrigued now – I’ll be looking to see if other people say “in truth”…

      • I hope you don’t stop using it! It’s a delightful phrase. I was reading Georgette Heyer recently and it’s just the sort of thing one of her characters might say.

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