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#517 ~ Black Venus

Cover of Black Venus
Black Venus by James MacManus

Published by: St. Martin’s Press

Published on: May 7, 2013

Page Count: 368

Genre: Historical Fiction

My Reading Format: ARC sent to me by BookTrib in order to participate in this book tour

Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook

Summary from the Publisher:

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.

My Review

A bohemian poet finds his muse in a streetwise mulatto cabaret dancer in Paris while the city is on the brink of a second violent revolution. For more there couldn’t be anything much more tempting than that. I did not hesitate when I was asked if I wanted to participate in James MacManus’ book tour. I went into Black Venus knowing virtually nothing about Baudelaire. I could have identified him as a Parisian poet, but that was the extent of what I knew. Like Baudelaire’s mother, his lack of personal responsibility with his finances irritated me, but I was drawn to his story and his life skirting the fringes of polite society. Jeanne Duval is an interesting character as well. The bastard daughter of a French plantation owner in Haiti and his favorite slave, she was forced to learn how to turn any circumstance to her advantage quickly. The undeniable attraction of these two self-serving people was as volatile as the streets of Paris during the Revolution of 1848. It is no wonder that the passion between the two lovers inspired poetry so sensual that they were banned, bankrupting the ambitious publisher who believed in him.

There is something intoxicating about Paris and the best novels taking place in that city make one want to be there in the thick of things, even when it is on the brink of revolution and is without a sufficient sanitation system. James MacManus did just that with Black Venus. From the moment I picked up Black Venus I was absorbed by the story. Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval both individually and separately are endlessly fascinating. Their contemporaries, such as Gustave Courbet, Theophile Gautier, and Edouard Manet add that much more flavor. This was especially true of Baudelaire’s ill-fated publisher, Auguste Poulet-Malassis. He staked his career and his livelihood on an artist under the spell and influence of Jeanne Duval and narcotics. More so than anyone else, I left Black Venus hoping that he ultimately found peace with the success that came as a result of his dedication after his death.

It may be considered a curse to live during interesting times, but reading about them is delicious and addictive. If you don’t have any exciting travel plans for this summer, I recommend picking up this novel. You will feel as though you’ve seen and experienced so much without ever having left your home. In fact, given the complementary time period and the connection to laudanum, Black Venus works very well when read along with Murder As A Fine Art. A summer spent in the Gothic fogginess of London and the bohemian bars of Paris is a summer well spent.


Author James MacManus discusses his novel Black Venus.

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