Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

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