by Jessica Dall
Cecilia de Santa Rita e Durante is the heroine of The Stars of Heaven. She survives the earthquake that practically destroys Lisbon in 1755 and the majority of her family by using her cunning, decisive intelligence and a little bit of luck. Her journey takes her from the makeshift barracas of Lisbon in the aftermath of the quake to be a leading player at the Court of the Portuguese First Minister, Senor Carvalho. Through this incredible journey, one man remains constant, if not always by her side, then in her thoughts; John Bates, the Protestant and one- time business associate of her Uncle. However, Cecilia’s involvement in the spying and scheming of the First Minister’s Court threatens not only her safety but that of all those around her, including Mr Bates…
I thought this book was an absolute tour de force. The depth of research and layers of narrative intrigue were first-rate. The plot was so meticulously crafted that every avenue and strand were accounted for. This was no mean feat as it was incredibly involved in parts but not so that it became confusing, tedious or far-fetched. Each character met their appropriate fate and none of them were superfluous; all had a part to play in this novel and played it well which is testament to the skilful writing of Ms Dall. I did find it a slow-burn; but once it took off, I really enjoyed immersing myself in Cecilia’s world; it became a sumptuous, all-encompassing read and I do have a weakness for historical fictions involving Court intrigue and scandal.
Throughout the novel, Cecilia and John’s mutual attraction and romance runs like a seam. I would have liked more chemistry between them in the earlier chapters and a little more descriptive imagery of both. I felt, at times, their relationship was slightly one-dimensional. However, it was refreshing that Cecilia took a number of decisions that made her flawed and, in passages of the book, unlikeable, which gifted her character more aspect as the novel progressed.
I was astounded to realise from the Author’s Note at the end of the novel that Ms Dall has no personal, Portuguese connection. To have written this book with no native involvement in the country and culture is an incredible achievement. I found the book to be an education, not only regarding the earthquake, of which next to nothing is known or recognised but also Portuguese life in the eighteenth century. On a purely aesthetic note, I thought the cover image was excellent and greatly complemented the writing.
A lavish, absorbing and highly recommended read.