Published by Atlantic (Allen & Unwin in Australia)
Rembrandt’s Mirror, set during the Dutch Golden Age, brings artist Rembrandt into the limelight. The book takes place during the painter’s later years, plagued by a long series of personal and financial losses.
The novel is anchored by the three women in in his life. Firstly, the reader is introduced to his wife Saskia, who dies in 1642 and leaves Rembrandt paralysed by grief. Secondly, Geertje, his housekeeper and lover. And finally, we are introduced to Hendrickje, a young maid who becomes his last great love and muse.
Rembrandt and Hendrickje’s love affair is a gradual start, with Hendrickje internalising a lot of her doubts to the reader. The author has deliberately focused on the women in the book so as to not give away much of what Rembrandt feels or thinks. He remains a mystery throughout the whole book, seen through the eyes of others.
The master’s other great gift is to make people love him
There is a sense of voyeurism in this novel. Even before Hendrickje and Rembrandt begin their relationship, she watches him and observes his affair with Geertje. Their affair is rough and not based on love. Geertje and Rembrandt meet every night in his room and Hendrickje follows and watches, surprised by their sexual relations outside of marriage and surprised by the almost animalistic nature of their night-time rendezvous.
Hendrickje grows intrigued by their affair, and through that, the reader first starts to understand her as a character. She’s naive and young, but she’s also extremely observant and intelligent. This book is set in a time where women were either a wife, a widow, a virgin, or they were a whore, and Hendrickje’s budding relationship with Rembrandt’s is a catalyst for her sexual awakening. She lusts after him, but is also mortified by the prospect of being with a man that she is not married to.
Although Rembrandt’s Mirror felt a little dry at times with slow pacing, it was a well-written character-driven novel set during a time period that I hadn’t read much about before. Each chapter is named after a painting and the stylistic prose of the book is both visual and artistic.
Kim Devereux was able to take a historical figure known to many, and allow readers to better understand who he could’ve been. She still allows a lot of mystery surrounding Rembrandt, but I think the whole point is that not a lot of people really knew who he was and what he thought. This is a rich, insightful fiction novel that I’d recommend to others.