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Historical novel set in Amsterdam plus author QA (the city “remained a beauty with bad breath”)

6th March 2016

Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux, historical novel set in Amsterdam.

First I have to say, our copy is a beautiful physical hardback book to hold in one’s hand. It feels sumptuous, with gold leaf effect on the front cover, framing “Saskia Sleeping”, an image of his wife and great love. The gold envelops the spine of the book, and on the reverse is a print of an old Amsterdam Grachtenhuis, Rembrandt’s actual house. Inside there are etchings of the city, on a sepia toned background. A real feel of class.


This is the story of Hendrickje Stoffels, a young woman who enters the Rembrandt household as a servant just as Saskia – his wife – passes away. Geertje, the head of the household, is already simultaneously in a relationship with the painter and Hendrickje – Rika – observes their at times difficult relationship. Hailing from a Calvinist background she struggles with these two carrying on their relationship, unwedded and carnal. But Rembrandt’s interest in her is waning, as his eye has perhaps alighted on Rika.

As the backdrop to the story is old Amsterdam of the mid 17th Century, certainly a beautiful city but with a malodorous underbelly that seeps into every nook and cranny. Dirty too, as Rika spends much time cleaning the windows. From the cabbage vendors to the skating on the frozen canals in winter, bodies inflating in the summer heat, this is a taxing yet edifying city to live in.

Each chapter is titled with one of Rembrandt’s paintings or paper art, which adds a real sense of progression and development to the novel through his art, forming a painterly background to each chapter. Pigments and painting are interwoven in the fabric of the book, and add real insight into the art of this hugely influential painter to the novel.

In the early chapters, the character of Hendrickje is one of a simple and naive girl from the country. She is caught off guard by the nightly activities that take place between Rembrandt and Geertje, yet finds herself irresistibly drawn to watch and observe their extraordinary interchanges. Her curiosity and developing coquettish self seem in the early chapters to be more in step with a girl of the 21st century, especially when she seeks out a prostitute to learn more about the sexual act, but this modernity abates as the story progresses and a gentle fondness between painter and poor girl is beautifully captured.

This is a novel that flows and brings the time and place to beautiful life.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

And over to Kim who has kindly agreed to answer our questions.

TF: There are so many great painters out there, what in particular drew you to Rembrandt, his life and work as the central theme for your book?

KD: A Rembrandt Exhibition in Minneapolis sold over 100,000 tickets a few years ago. Sometimes I wonder what it is about Rembrandt’s art that makes it so popular. I think he is a master at just leaving the right amount to our imagination. This is also the reason why I called my novel Rembrandt’s Mirror. We see aspects of ourselves revealed in his art.

In terms of me personally, I think he is a strikingly original artist; the way he invents painting techniques almost on the fly to suit a particular purpose. An example is dried up paint scrapings mixed in with oil paint to turn it into a paste that can be applied with the palette knife.

Often the writing of a novel is the working out of a question. The question in this case is: How was Rembrandt capable of creating such beautiful late works? They are all about the unavoidable fact of old age and mortality and the subject – himself – is approached with such acceptance and candour that I find myself deeply moved. I still cannot fully explain why they have this effect on me.

The Jewish Bride is another painting that mesmerizes me every time I see it. These works are all the more extraordinary given the losses he suffered towards the end of his life. He seems to have emerged on the other side with something that I wanted to understand better. That’s what the novel is about.

TF: Rembrandt’s personal life seems to be quite well documented. How much background research did you undertake both about his life as a painter and his life as a man? Were there any surprises in your findings along the way?

KD: I’m an art-historian and it was important to me to get the facts right. I have studied Rembrandt’s works and the associated documents for a least a decade. I have also met with leading experts such as Ernst van de Wetering, the director of the Rembrandt Research Project. The book has notes at the end which contain quite a few of the things I found surprising, for example attitudes to women and prostitution. Here is an extract from the notes: Petronella is a prostitute, whom Hendrickje befriends. Many of Petronella’s attitudes towards sex are based on Lotte van de Pol’s The Burgher and the Whore: Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam, which draws on seventeenth-century writing such as descriptions by travellers, as well as witness statements which were taken in the process of prosecuting women for prostitution. Extracts are used by kind permission of Oxford University Press. Van de Pol paints a vivid picture of attitudes at the time: Intercourse while undressed was considered abnormal. The sexual appetite of women was feared and considered greater than that of men. The dialogue ‘Doggy, where are you going? Come, go with me to my house, we’ll share a jug of beer’ is a quotation from a statement by a constable who lingered at the head of the Kalverstraat, pretending to be drunk. A chamber cat was a female prostitute who plied her trade at home often with only one or a few regular clients. Silent whores were prostitutes who hid the fact and outwardly led respectable lives.

TF: Amsterdam of the mid 17th Century with all its rich smells and visceral life really comes to life. This book would be a wonderful way to experience the history of the city through historical fiction, the footsteps past still resonating today. How did you go about getting a feel for the city of that era?

KD: Luckily Rembrandt’s house still exists and quite a bit of the 17th century lay-out of Amsterdam. I spent quite a lot of time in the Rembrandt House museum, drawing floor plans and imagining the scenes that may have played out there. Rembrandt’s works though were my primary inspiration. An example is the drawing that is featured in the chapter titled ‘Woman on a Gibbet’. It depicts a woman who has been executed and her body put on display to deter others. I researched the location of the field of gallows and walked through modern Amsterdam, the way Hendrickje follows Rembrandt in the novel.

TF: The writing has a very visual quality, I could imagine Rembrandt and Hendrickje walking along the Grachten or through the forest. I understand you are a short-film director. From film to writing – how did you manage the change of medium?

KD: To be honest, I did not consciously think about it. However, in hindsight I can see that my writing is influenced by the way I would visually conceive short films. For example, the first draft of a scene where Rembrandt and Hendrickje are sitting in the evening by the fire seemed a bit lack lustre. Not much happens; Rembrandt is drawing and Hendrickje is doing needlework but there is a growing tension between the two. As a filmmaker I know that sometimes you need to introduce some additional element and suddenly everything comes together, both visually and in terms of drama. Smoke or fog always look good on camera, so I thought I’d put a fire into the scene – a fire that belches smoke. It brought the scene to life, adding additional conflict and drama.

TF: The book cover is very eye catching. How much did you get involved with its design and execution?

KD: There was a lot of dialogue between me and my publisher about the cover but the design is entirely due to the genius of the cover artist. I love the colour scheme and of course Rembrandt’s unusual drawing which is reminiscent of Zen calligraphy. Funnily enough, one person I showed the cover to told me I should not use such a modern (!) drawing on a book about Rembrandt. Rembrandt has the last laugh. His style is age-less.

TF: What are you working on now, and will location feature strongly?

KD: My next novel will be set in the present day and largely narrated from the point of view of a character who has lost their eye sight. Location will feature strongly but through senses other than sight. It’s about a group of people who are trapped in what turns out to be a crucible of change. It will be a story about love and about how to discover beauty in exceptional situations but even more so in what’s ordinary.

Thanks to Kim for answering our questions.

You can find out more about the author via her website

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  1. User: aditi3991

    Posted on: 08/03/2016 at 11:16 am

    Splendid premise!