**spoiler alert** THE BLACK MADONNA, Peter Millar, Arcadia Books, 2010
A review copy of Peter Millar’s The Black Madonna arrived out of the blue when I**spoiler alert** THE BLACK MADONNA, Peter Millar, Arcadia Books, 2010
A review copy of Peter Millar’s The Black Madonna arrived out of the blue when I had just returned from August travels, which included visits to Chartres and Canterbury Cathedrals. Both cathedrals house black madonnas. The one in Chartres is famous, while Canterbury’s black virgin is tucked away in the Lady Chapel deep in the crypt. I found these images so mysterious and intriguing, and thus the book’s arrival seemed like a wonderful synchronicity.
A thriller written in the style of The Da Vinci Code, The Black Madonna’s cover blurb claims this book “will make Dan Brown green with envy.” Although Dan Brown is not a stellar writer or researcher, his popularity bears witness to his readers’ incredible hunger to learn more about the divine feminine within Christianity, an issue that Millar’s book would also seem to address, given the Marian prayers and hymns quoted on the flyleaf. So while I don’t generally read this sort of thing, I decided to give it a go to see if Millar, a journalist and translator with an international reputation, had any unique insights to offer on the enigmatic black virgins, found in pilgrimage sites across Europe.
The novel opens in Gaza, Palestine, where an ancient statue has been unearthed, believed to be the earliest representation of the Virgin Mary, possibly made in her own lifetime. This priceless artefact is housed in a museum in Gaza, but then, during the mayhem of an Israeli air strike, a thief breaks in and not only steals the Madonna but brutally rapes Nazreem, the curator, in a scene that felt very gratuitous and over the top.
Nazreem has something even more precious in her possession that the thief and his cohorts must never find. She flees to England to seek the help of Marcus, her South African ex-lover, a historian and fellow at All Souls College in Oxford. Meanwhile Nazreem and Marcus are being trailed by Islamic jihadists and British spooks. Their quest for the missing Madonna takes them to Altoetting, Bavaria, and then on to Madrid, Guadalupe, and Avila in Spain. Soon they must flee the clutches of fundamentalist Christians from Texas who have joined forces with the jihadists. And why would these two mutually opposed groups work together to stalk a lost statue of the Virgin Mary? To expose the Catholic Church as idolatrous Goddess worshippers, apparently, for the Madonna is, in fact, an image of the Phrygian Goddess Kybele. Add to this mix a castrated transsexual Kybele-worshipping serial murderer pretending to be a Catholic nun. Frankly, I don’t think Dan Brown will find much to envy here.
As well as a plot that defies credulity, the characterization seems poorly drawn. Although a PhD historian and an expert in comparative religion, Nazreem is astonished when Marcus informs her that Avila, Spain has its own famous saint—Teresa of Avila! While poor Nazreem must endure a brutal rape and beating, and is stabbed with a scimitar, Marcus is a male Mary Sue who breezes through druggings and kidnappings without suffering as much as a bruise.
There is no central revelation here to redeem the outlandish plot and labored writing. It has long been observed that Marian devotion may have its roots—or at least strong parallels—in the mystery religions devoted to Isis, Kybele, and Demeter, all manifestations of the Great Mother. There is also nothing new about the parallels between Christianity and its other early rival, the Persian cult of Mithras. As Christianity developed in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, it would seem only natural that it would bear a marked resemblance to other contemporary religions devoted to a dying and rising deity born of a virgin mother.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Millar’s novel is that it is published by Arcadia Books, a small independent press devoted to world literature and funded by the Arts Council of England. Perhaps the Arts Council funds would be better spent supporting an author whose writing shows a greater degree of originality or artistic merit than this weak imitation of Dan Brown.
Dark, Dickensian historical fiction at its best. It doesn't get more atmospheric than this Victorian thriller. The atmosphere is so dense, complete wiDark, Dickensian historical fiction at its best. It doesn't get more atmospheric than this Victorian thriller. The atmosphere is so dense, complete with horses inaccurately vomiting from London sewer stench (horses are incapable of vomiting, actually; that's why they can die so easily of colic), entire underground cities living in the London sewers and catacombs, phantoms, opium addiction, parasitic scarabs, and secret Egyptian cults. Completely mad and over the top, yet page-turning, even though the unreliable narrator, Wilkie Collins, is one of the most unsympathetic I have come across. He is so obsessed with his jealousy of Dickens that Dickens becomes the true hero and protagonist. ...more
THE LOVER'S PATH is a visual and literary feast. It's a beautiful object, a full-colour illustrated picture book for adults, enclosing a very moving aTHE LOVER'S PATH is a visual and literary feast. It's a beautiful object, a full-colour illustrated picture book for adults, enclosing a very moving and bittersweet love story set in Renaissance Venice. The star-crossed lovers are a celebrated courtesan's virginal and over-protected young sister and a cardinal's illegitimate son. Scattered throughout the book are envelopes that open to reveal love letters and Tarot cards, maps and alchemical symbols. The pages are edged in gilt. The lovers in the book are linked mythically and thematically to the archetypal lovers on the Lover's Path: Dante and Beatrice, Isis and Osiris, Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice, and ultimately Eros and Psyche. It's a timeless love story presented in a beautiful package that can live on your coffee table forever. It reminded me a lot of Erica Jong's Serenissima except without the explicit sex--and the eros is more haunting in that it remains in reader's imagination. If you're love Venice and women's history, you're in for a treat. ...more
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Feeling that she had buried her true self in marriage, Mamah longed to live. And so she not only embarked on an affair with Wright, but abandoned her adoring husband, her children, and her sister, running away to Europe with Wright.
I admired the fact that this is such a smart novel. Horan presents Mamah as an intellectual, a woman yearning to be her own woman, who first finds herself in middle age. This is no cheap bodice ripper.
At times I despaired of what appeared to be Mamah's foolish choices. There were two things in the book that didn't quite work for me. I never really understood what she saw in Frank Lloyd Wright. The book is called "Loving Frank," and yet I never found myself loving him in the least. I admire Horan's warts-and-all honesty about the man, and yet I never fathomed Mamah's passion for him.
The other thing that didn't quite work for me was the ending. Obviously the author is bound to the facts and can't change history just to please the reader. But the end felt so abrupt, like a Quentin Taratino ending spliced on to a Merchant Ivory film. To use one of Lloyd Wright's own terms, the ending just didn't feel organic to the rest of the narrative. Perhaps the use of foreshadowing might have set this up better.
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