Book Club with a Twist: August Book Review

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier.
Two families, two cities, one rogue go-between, and a set of gorgeous tapestries, all in a late medieval setting!
On the 1 August, a group gathered at the round table in the QVB Tea Rooms to launch the Book Club With A Twist (more about the twist later). The Tea Rooms were a pleasant surprise — and what an amazing space, very tall and beautifully understated. The QVB was once the home of the City of Sydney library before the madness of the push to tear the building down. Luckily that madness was overlooked and we have a most wonderful setting to enjoy.

Our first book to discuss was The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier. Here is an appropriate time to mention the twist — all the books on the agenda will have some reference to textiles, in whatever medium. Of course the focus of this book is a seductive set of tapestries, around which Chevalier has woven a fictional plot full of intrigue and many characters. The tapestries are a set of six tapestries that hang in the Musée National du Moyen Age (aka Cluny Museum) in Paris. Among other things, the tapestries represent the five senses. Each tapestry is usually referred to by the sense it depicts (Taste, Touch, Smell, Sound, Sight), with the sixth tapestry — which either introduces or concludes the series depending on how you view them — known as À Mon Seul Désir (To My One Desire) for the words woven into it. In this last tapestry, the main lady is either putting on or taking off some jewels, and one of Chevalier’s inspirations for writing this novel is to explore which it was.
Through the novel we are made aware of the process of making of a tapestry in medieval times — that it is a long and involved process in which Chevalier revels in the rich and intricate detail. It is advisable to have copies of the tapestries, as they are the focal point, and reading blind can be a bit frustrating, as they are constantly referenced. Chevalier has her own web site, where you can view the tapestries and also download the first chapter if you want a taster. Nicolas des Innocents, is the handsome, womanising artist that is summoned to the Paris home of Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who wants Nicolas to design a series of battle tapestries. His wife, Geneviève, however has other ideas and persuades Nicolas to change her husbands’ mind into choosing the subject of the taming of the unicorn by a noblewoman. Nicolas shapes the tapestries with his own vision, dedicating five of the six to the senses and using the images of Geneviève and her daughter, Claude, whom Nicolas has become besotted with, for two of the ladies in the tapestries.
They are woven in Brussels by the master weaver Georges de la Chapelle. Nicolas is at first reluctant to hand over his designs to his cartoonist, but soon realises the further work required to turn his paintings into tapestries, and of course soon develops an interest in the weavers daughter Aliénor, who together with her mother, are woven into the tapestries.
There are two traditional interpretations for the tapestries — as a virgin seducing a unicorn, or as a woman renouncing the physical world of the senses for the spiritual world. The first is the most popular interpretation, and refers to the old belief that the unicorn is so wild it cannot be tamed, except by a virgin (if she sits in the woods, the unicorn will come and lay its head in her lap!). Pretty raunchy at times this medieval lot!
The book is written from many different narrative voices, however Chevalier doesn’t differentiate very much in style between them, but that doesn’t detract from the telling of the story of the tapestries. The language is not Medieval speak but every so often she throws in some morsels to remind us of the times. I loved the book, and found it to be a very quick and easy read. I hope you enjoy it as much. Next book for the Book Club will be Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Hope you can join us — via Gina Sirabella

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