Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Black Venus by James MacManus

Black Venus
by James MacManus
Release Date: May 7th, 2013
2013 Thomas Dunne Books
Hardcover Edition; 368 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-250-01423-8
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from Booktrib

3.5 / 5 Stars

Among the bohemians, the young Charles Baudelaire stood out—dressed impeccably thanks to an inheritance that was quickly vanishing. Still at work on the poems that he hoped would make his name, he spent his nights enjoying the alcohol, opium, and women who filled the seedy streets of the city.

One woman would catch his eye—a beautiful Haitian cabaret singer named Jeanne Duval. Their lives would remain forever intertwined thereafter, and their romance would inspire his most infamous poems—leading to the banning of his masterwork, Les Fleurs du Mal, and a scandalous public trial for obscenity.

James MacManus's Black Venus re-creates the classic Parisian literary world in vivid detail, complete with not just an affecting portrait of the famous poet but also his often misunderstood, much-maligned muse.

My Thoughts
Black Venus is a fictional retelling of the difficult relationship between Charles Baudelaire and the woman he would consider his muse, Jeanne Duval.  A French poet whose work has been critically acclaimed by many others and would influence many generations of artists, he was also known as an essayist, and art critic, and pioneered the early translations of Edgar Allan Poe.  This novel explores the relationship between Baudelaire and Duval, and his inspiration for his most famous, and perhaps his most controversial, piece of work, Les Fleurs du Mal.

What I Liked:  I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this novel, and the descriptions of Paris during Baudelaire's time period.  Baudelaire admired his city very much, every aspect of it, and the author attempted to show the poet's deep love for Paris throughout the novel, which I believe came through rather well.  I loved his interactions with other famous artists during time, and would really have loved to have seen more of this in this novel.  Artists such as Manet and Courbet and Hugo flowed across the page with ease, and I really enjoyed the dialogue and disputes and discussions that ensued. I enjoyed the political discussions and the difficulties of the artists' lives because of these political problems and I thought it was quite interesting and fascinating.  Baudelaire's trial and how it played out was also quite interesting as it really brought to mind the limitations the artists faced during this time period and the struggles they faced against censorship and freedom of expression.  I remember reading that one of Courbet's paintings was not released to the public until 1988, and even Baudelaire's entire collection was not released until 1949.  

Where I Had Some Issues: Personally, while I really enjoyed the bohemian aspect of the novel and delved right into the historical side with no problem, where I had difficulty was believing in Baudelaire and Duval's relationship.  I'm not really sure that the author managed to convey to the reader exactly what kept them together for all of these years and I didn't feel invested in their relationship.  The little something, that little spark, that would have ignited this pair and created these poems, did not really seem to be there for me in this novel and I was disappointed in this. The fact that these two did not belong together and created nothing but trouble for each other came through quite clearly, especially as most of their problems seemed to be solved through a laudanum bottle or opium bottle.  And I did enjoy the scenes where they had difficulty interacting with each other and how issues were resolved, but I'm not sure whether the author wanted to present Duval as a character that I should pity or one that I should like, as for the most part I didn't really like her.  I admired her feistiness and her guts to survive in a difficult world, absolutely, but her basic personality and how she used people, I did not like very much.  But like I said, I do admire those who can survive and she was definitely a survivor.

Black Venus was an enjoyable novel in the sense that I really thought the author did a fantastic job with regards to the research and felt really in touch with nineteenth century France.  I enjoyed the atmosphere of the novel, as well as learning more about a city I adore very much, and trying to understand the hardships that people faced with all of the political turmoil that existed during this time period.  That being said however, I still felt like something was missing in this novel, that little something between Baudelaire and Duval that would have really lit up this novel as I didn't really feel a lot of empathy for either character, even knowing how it would end for both of them as I was already familiar with their story.  Despite this, I would recommend this novel to those who enjoy a trip down historical lane and I would definitely read the next novel published by this author.  


  1. Splendid review. Not quite sure this is quite my cup of proverbial tea....