London, January 1st 1853 Annie Stride is standing on the parapet of Waterloo Bridge in desperation, in exactly the same place her best friend Mary-Jane committed suicide a few months earlier. She is a penniless, homeless, prostitute who is also pregnant, she sees death as her only choice. Just as she is about to throw herself into the icy, dark water of the Thames a hand reaches out to stop her; Francis Maybrick Gill, a pre-Raphaelite artist.
Francis takes Annie back to his house where her makes her his model and muse for his paintings, and in doing so makes her beauty famous throughout London Society. Annie is elevated from prostitute to a lady able to mix in polite society. From the pre-Raphaelite’s of London to the Renaissance masters in Florence and Venice, just how long can Annie’s past stay in the past, and will there be a price to pay for this new life.
Marina Fiorato is one of my favourite historical novelists. Her books regularly combine my favourite subjects; history, art and Italy all of which are part of Crimson & Bone. This book has a slightly darker, more gothic feel to it than her previous novels. To stay with an art metaphor this novel is like a Caravaggio painting; the light and focus draw your eye to the main characters but the darkness surrounding them is always threatening to encroach on them.
The plot is similar to Pygmalion in that Frances Maybrick Gill takes Annie and raises her up in society by teaching her how to behave, speak and act like a lady. As a character Frances seems the hero of this book in his saving Annie from her death and giving her a chance at a better life, but there is something that makes you feel uncomfortable, that he is not all that he seems.
Annie has a hard start to life, begging and stealing from when she was a child, but she hasn’t let it destroy her spirit. After her brush with death we see that her heart is in the right place and there is a warmth and gentleness to her character that evolves during the book. She also shows an aptitude for learning and is a willing student is her progression form prostitute to lady. It is from Annie’s perspective that the story is told, her progression in life and her feelings for Frances. As well as Annie, Mary Jane who was Annie’s best friend, opens each chapter telling her story leading up to her death.
Marina Fiorato’s writing is beautifully lyrical in her use of language. The prose flows seamlessly which makes it pleasurable and easy to read. Her descriptive writing of London, Florence and Venice is captivating, you are transported back to the mid nineteenth century with its sights, sounds and smells. I also enjoyed her evocation of the art works, both pre-Raphaelite and Renaissance. Through language she brought the paintings to life which isn’t easy, which enriched the reading experience. If you are interested you can of course look up the paintings on the Internet, but remember Francis Maybrick Gill is a fictional character although his subject matter was commonly painted by other artists.
The Crimson & Bone is an erudite and exquisite read. Full of detail with a plot that will keep you engaged from the first page to the last. This is historical fiction at its best.