Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

Published by Pushkin Vertigo, ISBN 978 1 78227 453 7 £9.99

It is always a delight to discover a new author whose work is both refreshing and novel.

Last week I finished one book and was wondering what to try next. Fortunately for me, Pushkin Vertigo got in touch about a new book they were launching, and offered a review copy. I rarely turn down the chance of a review copy.

I read many books for reviews, but the sad fact is, not all get written up. There is a simple reason for this: as I have said plenty of times, I will not tend to review books I really dislike, because what I detest may well appeal enormously to other people. So I prefer to review books I like, giving the reasons why, and those books I don’t enjoy, I leave to people who who like them. I don’t see it as my job to slag off the hard efforts of other writers.

The was no hesitation about this book, however.

First, a digression: it arrived superbly well presented. In this sad age of print-on-demand, leading to thin covers, poor binding, and printing that I could do better on my laser printer at home, it is always a joy to receive a book that actually feels like a piece of quality when you pick it up. This is one such. The pages are not the very best quality, but they are as good as a paperback should be – in other words, they’re the same quality as a book I would have bought in the 80s. The cover is glorious, a dark, grim red, with a mysterious figure in eighteenth century costume walking along a road, with the towers of a cathedral (Notre Dame?) in the distance. A woman is visible some way ahead of him. The picture itself is framed as though it was an oil painting. Continuing with the feeling of a book that has been valued by its publishers, the cover has flaps which are folded back on themselves, so they have the appearance of a jacket on a hardback.

I’ve wittered on about the book’s appearance for a while. Why? Because it shows that the publishers have taken pride in this book, and that they value it. Why does this matter? Because most publishers appear to look on books as mere commodities. They don’t seem to care about the look of their books. This is one in which the publishers are demonstrating great confidence.

As they should. Olivier Barde-Cabuçon is a very skilled writer – I imagine. I say that because this is a translation. I will come back to that point in a moment.

Barde-Cabucon manages to write in a style that could have been contemporary with his story. It is direct, but never tedious. There are some relatively flowery descriptions, but these tend to be brief and to the point, unlike, say, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, (one of my favourite historicals) which, I admit, had several sections where my natural inclination was to scoot past the descriptions and on to the action. I believe that two or three pages interpreting a doorway is basically two pages too many.

This story begins with a young girl being deposited on the street in Paris from a coach. As she alights, a voice from inside the coach tells her to be careful. And she tries to be – but soon her screams are heard, and she is discovered by the famous Casanova.

But this is not a book in which Casanova is the primary protagonist. They are Volnay, the Paris Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, and his companion, a man known as the Monk.

These two are known about France for their skills at detecting clues in the murders of the King’s subjects. Volnay himself was given his job because he managed to save the king from an assassination attempt, and although he had been a republican in his youth, now he sees his task as being to support victims by finding their murderers.

His friend has also been a rebel, and enjoys great understanding of anatomy, which is essential in their trade.

This murder is one that will test them, however, because when Volnay is called to the dead woman and searches her pockets, he discovers a letter. It carries the King’s seal.

Volnay is a man on honour and integrity, and will not look at this letter. He keeps it sealed. But others know of it, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to discover it.

There is the delightful and beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, the Comte de Saint-Germain, the King’s mistress, Madame Pompadour – but also the fearsome Brotherhood, and the Devout Party.

So many secrets, so many spies, so many dangers for a policeman trying to do his best.

This is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Well-written and excellently presented. However, there is one last point I have to make: the key element in this excellent book.

All too often we pick up foreign books and read them with delight. It doesn’t matter who the author is, and we get to enjoy the flavour of their writing without noticing the fact that – well, we aren’t reading them. We are reading a translation, which is really an interpretation of the work, the entire story taken and put into English for us to devour.

Sometimes those translations are dreadful. And we blame the author. Wouldn’t touch his/her books again, we say. And when the translation is good, we congratulate the author. In reality we should recognise that there has been an individual sitting between the author’s words and our reading: the translator. 

This book is so good because the translator has done a magnificent job as well as the author. So tonight, raise a  glass to Louise Rogers Lalaurie – a lady who can take a text and make it perfectly comprehensible in a foreign language, a rare skill. 

I highly recommend this book, in case you hadn’t realised.

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