In The Name of the Family - Sarah Dunant *****
If you haven't already read Blood & Beauty, the first part of Sarah Dunant's fictionalisation of the years of the Borgia papacy during the Italian Renaissance, it might initially be a little bit difficult to grasp the depth of characterisation that the author has established and carried through to In The Name of the Family. It's important to see them as real people rather than monsters or even just historical figures because Dunant does have a different perspective to share on this period, or at least attempts to cut through the rumour and the legend to try to find a more likely measure of truth behind the exaggeration and self-aggrandisement. Even then, In the Name of the Family is still nothing less than a wild account of the actions of a shocking and notorious family dynasty.
Even if you have read Blood and Beauty, it was published five years ago, so the sequel has been a long time coming. making it difficult to pick up the thread again. The personalities developed in Dunant's first novel however are consistent and are quickest to re-establish themselves, although some gruesome revenge killings and political power play soon remind you of the nature of the family we are dealing with here. The reputation of the notorious Borgias may or may not be merited - and in reality the assassinations, plotting, ambition and conquest are pretty much the norm for this period - it's perhaps not so well accounted for in the context of history, circumstance and personality. Dunant makes further great developments in this direction in In The Name of the Family.
The reason for the long delay in the appearance of the follow-up soon becomes apparent. It's not so much that Dunant has to compete with popular TV series that have sprung up in the meantime - with 'Game of Thrones' covering similar ground, not to mention several series about the Borgias themselves - as much as it has to counteract the crudity of their rationale with rather more historically correct and credible motivation and behaviour. Or, to put it simply; research. The descriptions and knowledge of ancient geographical features, history, culture, medicine and family history viewed in passing here has clearly been researched and its implications thought through. Dunant has clearly done her background work, but more than that, rather than rely entirely on written accounts that misjudge, exaggerate or dissemble, she has attempted to understand the nature of the people involved and from that derive a more likely truth.
And whatever the truth of the detail might be outside of the conjecture and rumour, the fact is that, even if not much more so than other family dynasties of this period, the Borgias were indeed a power-hungry family that were ruthless in removing anyone who stood in the way of or threatened their ambition. Again, Rodrigo is perhaps the most important central figure here, as head of the family and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. In a rather more balanced account however, the positions of Cesare and Luzrezia also have prominence here. Cesare, the violent son unsuited to succeed Alexander in the Papacy, takes the ambitions for a Borgia state in another direction of conquest. He has made many enemies however and is struggling to recover from a terrible ailment, but his unpredictability and his ruthlessness give him a great tactical advantage that impresses a young Niccolò Machiavelli.
The relative power of men and women are treated realistically for the historical period, and while Dunant doesn't pretend that they have anything like an equal role, she recognises that Lucrezia has an important part to play in the Borgia plan for domination. Without over-emphasising or undervaluing her importance or influence, Dunant shows the importance of marriage alliances are at this time, as well as the bearing of a male inheritor. No more and no less than Alexander or Cesare Lucrezia's position and personality are clearly and credibly laid out by the author. Considerably less evil than her reputation suggests, appearing to be more sinned against than sinning, Lucrezia is nonetheless plays an important part in the ambitions of the Borgia family.
If there was the impression sometimes in Blood and Beauty that the tide of history was stronger in the narrative than the force of personality, In The Name of the Family is a much richer and satisfying book on nearly every level. History can't be changed of course, but the groundwork development of the previous book takes on a momentum of its own here. Dunant goes with the flow but controls it brilliantly, enriching the character detail with little observations, insights and speculative details, such as the importance of role that the medicines and investigations made by Gaspare Torella into the epidemic of the 'French pox'.
There is even time for a little reflection in In The Name of the Family on how the grand plans and ambitions of the powerful can come to a sudden end and yet still leave an indelible imprint on history and continue to have relevance and lessons for the present day. Whether it's in the details of character development and interaction or on the grander scale set-pieces of historical conquest and assassination, Sarah Dunant follow up Blood and Beauty with a thrilling sequel that brings together everything that remains fascinating and appalling in the lives of the Borgias and has created an involving and thrilling piece of historical fiction.
In The Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant is published by Virago.
In The Name of the Family - Sarah Dunant *****