WOLVES IN WINTER
Author: Lisa Hilton
Atlantic RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Set in late 15th/early 16th century Europe, Wolves in Winter is intriguing and insightful historical fiction that transports the reader to the political machinations that characterised Renaissance Italy. The cover is beautiful (love the dress); the fact that you can’t see the model’s eyes hints at the secrecy contained within.
The story begins in 1492 when five-year-old Mura lives with her widowed father, a bookseller who has tutored her in Arabic learning, alchemy and the ancient myths of the North. Her learning is not the only thing that sets her apart: Mura is a “different” child – some call her strange and bewitching. In part this is due to her exotic, androgynous looks (a mixture of Moorish, Spanish and Nordic blood), but there is something about her that makes most people avoid her as though she’s possessed. Others, it turns out, want her for her knowledge and “gift of sight”.
When her father is arrested by the Inquisition, life for Mura becomes a series of what could euphemistically be deemed adventures, but in reality means the young girl is shifted from pillar to post with no say whatsoever. From a brothel where she’s sent for “safekeeping” to a troupe of circus performers, from a Genoese slaver to the House of Medici in Florence, from a Medici house slave to being Countess Caterina Sforza’s confidante/lady’s maid of, Mura has to learn to fend for herself again and again. As she finds, everyone wants something from her.
The countess, in particular, is fascinated by Mura’s arcane knowledge. Manipulative and malicious, the countess relies on her womanhood for survival amid the political machinations of the time. In time, Mura is educated further in the arts of alchemy, potions and poisons, building on knowledge already gleaned from her father and the enigmatic Master Ficino in Florence. She soon becomes a player in the power games of Renaissance Italy. But will she ever gain her freedom?
I read Hilton’s first book, The House With Blue Shutters, a few years back. Wolves in Winter, as historical fiction compared to contemporary fiction, is for the most part, a very different book. There are a few commonalities though – political upheaval, buried secrets and women feeling confined by gender or circumstance are common themes in both stories. Hilton does write very well; there’s no doubt in my mind that Wolves in Winter is an impeccably researched example of historical fiction. However, there’s something about Hilton’s writing style that keeps me from really loving her work. I can’t really pinpoint what it is or why, but neither book really engaged me in the way I would have liked (and expected from the synopsis). There’s a dry-ness about it, that I suppose, stops me from really connecting with the characters. I remember this feeling from The House With Blue Shutters.
I did empathise with Mura. I could feel her outrage at being treated as though she were of little value by some and manipulated by others. I felt sad that her childhood was spent being shifted around, with no love (save her short-lived friendship with Cecco) … perhaps the emotional disconnect I felt merely mirrored the emotional disconnect that Mura had to adopt to protect herself. But eventually, for me that disconnect meant a degree of disengagement with the novel.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some beautifully descriptive scenes in this novel that captivated me, particularly those set in Florence, as well as some well-drawn characters such as Ficino, Cecco and Caterina. I was also intrigued by the insight into what would have been a turbulent time for all – male, female, young, old, religious or secular, ruler or peasant. It’s just that as a complete package, the book didn’t quite beguile me as promised and I was left a tad unsatisfied. For lovers of historical fiction, however, it’s definitely worth a read – like a good wine, it is bound to taste different for every consumer.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This book was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: Set largely in Florence, so it has to be Florentines.