The Ornatrix by Kate Howard

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  There is no glass or silver disc in the house to show what she is. Pia is always preening herself in the copper plate but her mother has forbidden Flavia from doing that.

   It is one order she is happy to obey.

 

In a time when closing your eyes to ugliness and looking only on beautiful things kept a baby from being cursed with ‘ugliness’ Flavia seems doomed when born with a birthmark covering her face, of a bird in flight. The very scene her mother saw in the sky. It was all Mona Grazia’s fault, if superstitions were to be believed. Though kept hidden like some dark family stain, Flavia’s fate changes when she encounters the courtesan Ghostanza and her entrancing beauty.  When Flavia is sent to a convent for doing something ‘bad’ before her sister’s wedding,  her family does not return for her. Soon she will be an Ornatrix, which is defined as a woman that adorns another woman, in this case with her toilette.  Ghostanza is obsessed with maintaining her beauty, and with her need for ingredients she relies on Flavia to procure them in order to make her  recipes. Naturally a courtesan renowned for beauty, even if her heart is cruel, must obsess with holding dear to every inch of her flawless skin and in my mind I was comparing the ‘potions’ of bygone times to modern day beauty products. Oh the things we slather on ourselves to maintain illusions. Smoke and mirrors, all of it. That the past can seem so backwards and yet beauty and it’s standards just as unjust today as it was in Italy long ago can seem disheartening.

That white face, erotic, enchanting and poisonous- what makes us beautiful can damn us too. Flavia will learn why the women need to cover their faces so much with the make-up.  Vanity is an interesting beast, for any century. That The Ornatrix takes place in the 16th Century Italy lends far more power to the story. The city itself is a character, pulsing and pushing. The fact that a child born with a birthmark is as good as cursed and hidden is shocking to modern thinking and yet… what was worse than to be born a girl?  Being born a girl with any physical flaw! The novel manages to be both dark and enticing, and certainly should be on the list of any reader that enjoys historical fiction. The writing is lyrical, and the setting is perfect. Beauty can be bad for you, it can rot you on the inside and sometimes the outside too.

Out November 15, 2016

The Overlook Press

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