The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

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The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A fabulous historical read, taking an artist into courtly intrigue and one of British royalty's biggest secrets. Thoroughly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Macmillan New Writing
ISBN: 978-0230744127

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Belgium, the fifteenth century. Hans is apprenticed to a master painter in the city of Brussels, until the old curmudgeon dies, and his studio falls apart. Luckily for Hans, a mistakenly drawn sketch, and a bizarre rescue from the gallows gives him a major boost - patronage, for both portraits and many religious images. With what might seem to be a patchy diary - some years have five pages only, concerning but one month - we see his startling life journey, covering beguiling models, ghostly war scenes, and even the biggest intrigues of English royal court.

This then is certainly a rich and varied historical fiction, but definitely is based on the reality of the life of Hans Memling, the titular master - an artist we may not have heard of, but will be most delighted to accompany through this brilliant and too-brief novel.

There is a startling and ever-interesting narrative here, that made me itch to turn to the author's note at the end regarding the veracity. It's a story that thrust me towards this commendation, and wikipedia to look up all the relevant biographies, but the telling also urged me to slow down and take things in, as I did with the most affecting death scene I've read in years, and the unexpected episode which results.

To continue with the style, and another pair of contrasts - there is the naivety of Hans as he gets leant on very obviously by his patron, mixed with flashes of a 2010s hindsight as he says of certain artworks, 'this was the first of its kind', 'that one ended up there', 'this would never be seen again'. I refuse to believe that this is naively here, or mistakenly here, for I would have it the author knows just what he intends to put where, and gets it all spot on. His esteemed research is worn exceedingly lightly.

The way the tone swings in minutest detail from bright, comedic lines from Hans (even including modern-seeming gags referencing the persona of bankers) to the most passionate response to all that inspires his art, and more, is outstanding. The only frustration one might feel with the book is that is covers art we don't know, and is too busy with its plot to show them to us, especially those of us as immersed (and without home internet) as I. But my counter to that is that the second part, when art takes a forced back seat, and we get something more like supposition, does not feel too removed as a result.

But to the merit of the author he picks a mostly unsung talent, in a circle we didn't know of, concerning acts we've not heard of, and then expands the world - as real life did for Memling - into the final intrigues. And rest assured any finality to this book is too soon, as I could have taken much more of this quality. (Note to publishers - this is very rare for me to say this. 99.9% of the time what I get is at least enough.)

Some of the scenes made me deem this to be on the lighter side of historical fiction; others made me retract that. Nothing diverts me from saying this is of a rare, supreme quality side of historical fiction.

I must thank Macmillan's kind people for my review copy. But I must urge them to just plain shoot the blurb writer of my hardback edition - giving far too much away, and even mentioning the last ten pages and how they affect the entire lush read.

The reader is advised to clear their shelves of poorer fiction and put this in prime position. You'll notice I've hidden the real source of the final intrigue, but I'll admit what it is - it's in here. And here, too.

Booklists.jpg The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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