Historical novel set in Amsterdam (the city “remained a beauty with bad breath”)
- Book: Rembrandt’s Mirror
- Location: Amsterdam
- Author: Kim Devereux
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.
This review first appeared on our blog where we chat to the author about inspiration and writing