In the Name of the Family

Historical fiction. The slog of reading it is real. I wanted to like all those books about that English king who killed/divorced all his wives and the plethora of other fictionalized accounts of real and very dead kings and queens.

European historical fiction from the 12 to 17th centuries always tricks me into reading it. I want to love it, but usually the author’s adherence to facts within the story end up boring me. Fiction allows for more flexibility than accommodating the facts. Also, too many ‘characters’ have the same names and I can never keep them straight. I know. Life is rough.


I didn’t experience that with Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of Family. Possibly this is because the facts about the Borgias family and Machiavelli are compelling enough on their own. Or perhaps because Italian history is not as beaten to death as British and French history in the Canadian school system. In Dunant’s book, history seems more absurd, dramatic and fanciful than any fiction. She also doesn’t write in a pedantic style: the book could have been contemporary fiction, outside of the timeline and plot.

The novel is set in 1502. Rodrigo Borgia is on the papal throne and his daughter, Lucrezia, is on her third marriage to help secure an alliance. His son, Cesare is steamrolling through Italy and overthrowing controlling families and securing their lands for his father, under the guise of stabilizing and strengthening all of Italy. Really, the Borgia family does seem to have had timing and ruthlessness going for it. Even the outlying characters in the novel are astounded by how easily the family has seized control. It shouldn’t have been possible, given the rumours of corruption and the Borgia’s relative unimportance not so long before. (People don’t learn. Read: latest news headlines).

It would have helped, I think, if I had a better idea of how Italy’s government and states were set up at the time prior to reading the novel. Google is a useful tool for this, however disruptive it is to have to stop and look up context on one’s phone.

I’m feeling marginally more motivated to watch Borgia on Netflix now. It has been sitting on my list for ages.

Sarah Dunant was at Events 63 (The Pull of History), 67 (The Literary Cabaret) and 87 (In the Name of the Family) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.


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