Title: Black Venus by James MacManus
Imprint: Thomas Dunne Books
Length: 367 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Blog Tour Company
A vivid novel of Charles Baudelaire and his lover Jeanne Duval, the Haitian cabaret singer who inspired his most famous and controversial poems, set in nineteenth-century Paris.
For readers who have been drawn to The Paris Wife, Black Venus captures the artistic scene in the great French city decades earlier, when the likes of Dumas and Balzac argued literature in the cafes of the Left Bank. 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.
Black Venus is a mesmerizing fictionalized novel about French poet Charles Baudelaire and his oftentimes turbulent relationship with his mistress and muse Jeanne Duval. James MacManus brilliantly incorporates fact and fiction into an incredibly fascinating story that I found impossible to put down.
Beginning in 1842 as Charles turns twenty-one and ending in 1867 with his death, Black Venus is a gritty and in-depth account of Charles’ life. Mr. MacManus does not downplay Charles’ extravagant lifestyle, his excessive drinking, his dependence on opium or his longstanding money problems. Charles is spoiled, petulant and his lack of impulse control leads to astoundingly poor decisions that haunt him for most of his life.
Nor does Mr. MacManus gloss over Charles’ tumultuous twenty year relationship with cabaret singer Jeanne Duval. In most books about Charles, Jeanne’s general portrayal is unflattering, but in Black Venus, we see her in a more sympathetic light. Their relationship is volatile and plagued by jealousy and infidelity and neither Jeanne nor Charles understand their dependence on one another. Despite their numerous and tempestuous breakups, Jeanne is clearly the inspiration for many of Charles’ poems and his devotion to her never wanes.
Mr. MacManus’ research of both the time period and Charles’ life is exemplary. It is easy to romanticize both Paris and the Bohemian way of life, but Mr. MacManus avoids this pitfall with accurate depictions of harsh living conditions and a non-glamorous representation of Charles and Jeanne’s sometimes seedy lifestyle. His descriptive and compelling prose brings the streets and businesses of Paris vibrantly to life and adds authenticity to the overall story.
I have little knowledge of poetry or Charles Baudelaire, but I was quite intrigued by Black Venus. I love history, but often find non-fiction works to be, well, a little on the dull side but I cannot resist a fictionalized novel about real places, people or events. The right author can breathe life into long ago events and James MacManus brilliantly succeeds in not only keeping, but piquing, readers’ interest about this significant moment in history with this enthralling character study of Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval.
For more insight into Black Venus here is a short video by author James MacManus:
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