Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book review: The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley

Riley, Judith Merkle. The Serpent Garden. NY: Three Rivers, 2008 (c1996). 449pp. $14.95/C$16.95. Paper, 978-0-307-39536-8.

"… Then I thought, well, maybe this is what happens to people who think unkind thoughts about husbands and then take money for lewd Bible pictures from wicked monks. It all catches up with one." (p.294)

Susanna Dallet's droll, irreverent narration is just one of the reasons to pick up Judith Merkle Riley's The Serpent Garden, even if you read it in its original hardcover release in 1996. I haven’t read one of Riley's novels for the past decade, but in reading this reissue, I'm glad I remedied that omission. It begins in 1514, as Susanna, daughter of a Flemish portraitist living in England, is about to be widowed. After her husband Rowland, a philandering painter who wed her to learn her father's techniques, assists in uncovering a long-buried manuscript, Susanna becomes the unwitting target of dangerous conspirators.

When Dallet is sadly (not really) murdered by the jealous husband of his mistress, Susanna is forced to fend for herself in a land not welcoming to independent women. She finds a lucrative trade in creating, anonymously of course, the hilariously vulgar Bible paintings mentioned above, and, later, becoming a paintrix of miniatures at the court of Henry VIII – which piques the attention of Archbishop Wolsey. At Wolsey’s suggestion, she accompanies Mary Tudor, the king's beautiful, spoiled younger sister, to France, where Mary's arranged marriage to the decrepit Louis XII is vigorously protested by rival claimants to the throne.

While at the French court, Susanna paints miniatures for the French royals and sends others, small cryptograms in watercolor, across the Channel to Wolsey – who uses them to determine their subjects’ true character. Meanwhile, a demon named Belphagor, a creature from hell magically set free during the manuscript’s discovery, manipulates the humans around him into obeying his wishes. His ultimate aim: to eliminate all members of the Valois dynasty, and there are a lot of them around. Because a missing portion of the manuscript may have ended up in Susanna’s unknowing possession, she attracts the attention of said demon, as well as that of other unsavory men.

There's no denying it, the novel has a lot going on. It takes a while to adjust to the multiple plotlines, particularly when the viewpoint switches several times within a chapter. Susanna's first-person narration alternates with third-person accounts of the conspirators (two groups of them); the demon and his imps; and several other parties, including Robert Ashton, Wolsey's guileless young secretary, attracted to Susanna against his better judgment. Furthermore, although the novel boasts a large cast of characters, many of those appearing early on fall by the wayside as the story continues. This lengthy novel is not easily skimmed, especially in the beginning. Yet just as Susanna skillfully paints "portraits in small" without revealing individual brushstrokes, so does Riley develop, with no excess verbiage, her secondary characters. These range from Master Dallet's selfish mistress, to crafty Marguerite d'Alençon, to the angel Hadriel, a heavenly being with a soft spot for Susanna’s predicament.

Riley's wry humor is one of the novel's strong points; it takes skill to elicit grins (even laughs) in readers without it feeling forced. Susanna's chatty, unselfconscious observations about herself and her world are extremely funny, as are Riley's tongue-in-cheek portrayals of the French and English royals and their coterie. Yet there are also many touching moments, such as Susanna's interpretation-in-paints of loyal, sweet-tempered Princess Claude. In addition, there is one distinct advantage to reading the novel now, one which has to do with an ancient secret society hell-bent on destroying the Valois monarchy. If I name this group as the Priory of Sion, as Riley does early on, chances are you'll know exactly where one thread of this novel is heading, but it doesn't matter. Reading The Serpent Garden, on one level, as an alternative to a certain religious thriller (one published eight years later) actually heightened my enjoyment, because Susanna's final pronouncements on the reality of that novel's premise make perfect sense. The earlier novel is also better written, needless to say.

In sum: this is a delightful, intricately written historical novel, with more than a dash of fantasy, which stands out amidst the glut of Tudor-era novels on the market.


  1. Ok...sounds way too tempting for me to pass up. This one is going in my TBR pile for sure. Thanks for sharing. Donna

    tekeygirl at gmail dot com

  2. Anonymous10:49 AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago, but I enjoyed Riley's MASTER OF ALL DESIRES even more. As with this novel, she captures her multitude of characters so well and she is so clever with creating humorous moments even in the midst of mayhem and evil. The "talking head" that it seems everyone from Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers to Nostradamus are out to lay their hands on, is truly bizarre.

    Thanks for the excellent review.

  3. Mike, you're the second person to tell me MASTER OF ALL DESIRES is a favorite among her work. I don't think that's one I've read yet, but I own a copy.

  4. Anonymous2:29 PM

    I first red "The oracle glass" by JMR and was hooked! Sadly she hasnt written anymore books.

  5. Hi Soph, have you read The Water Devil? It came out last year - first English-language publication.

  6. Anonymous3:24 AM

    Sara,Ive read the previous books but not that one or master of all desires.