Books and reading

Art + History + Crime = ‘The Engraver’s Secret’ by Lisa Medved

This first novel by Australian author Lisa Medved shines with historical detail and the beauty of the artworks which are the main subject of the plotlines – two plotlines, as it is a dual timeline novel.

The modern-day story features art historian Charlotte, recently arrived in Antwerp in Belgium. Recovering from the death of her beloved mother, Charlotte has just landed her dream job at the university, and hopes to do more research on her artistic hero, Rubens, while in the city where he created so many of his famous works in the seventeenth century.

She is also nursing a secret: an unwelcome last minute disclosure by her mother about the identity of her father – a man she had been led to believe was ‘no good’ and long dead.

While at the university, she discovers a clue that could lead to a ground-breaking discovery about Ruben’s work, and his relationship with the eponymous engraver who worked in his studio for many years.

This is where the second timeline comes in. It’s the story of Antonia, a teenaged girl living in Antwerp in the 1620’s, the daughter of the engraver, Lucas Vosterman. Raised by her father to pursue academic and artistic interests, she later finds that the options available to a young woman are much more limited. And like Charlotte, Antonia is the recipient of an unwelcome admission by her father – a secret that she must carry to her grave.

As Charlotte sets off on a quest to find the centuries-old clues that could establish her career as an art historian, she experiences the serious consequences of the competition and professional jealousy amongst her colleagues at the university.

Meanwhile, as Antonia deals with her own heartbreak and the barriers to leading a fulfilled life as an independent woman, she must struggle with the consequences of her father’s behaviour:

I owed him my gratitude and loyalty, yet something inside me – my ingrained stubbornness, whispers of doubt, a yearning for independence – stopped me from fully submitting to his will. How can I remain loyal to my family and stay true to myself?

The Engraver’s Secret p 371

Underlying both stories is the relationship between the two protagonists and their fathers, and the constraints imposed by the times and places in which they live.

I loved the mysteries at the heart of the novel; the wonderful detail provided of seventeenth century life and culture in (what was then) the Spanish Hapsburg Empire; the descriptions of the beautiful artworks and their creators. The author has a background in both art and history and her knowledge and love of these subjects inform the book in a natural and accessible way. As always I enjoyed reading about places and historical periods that I know relatively little about; it always makes me want to know more.

But most of all I enjoyed the very human dilemmas of the two women and the relationships at the heart of their stories.

The author’s next book will be set in Vienna and feature the artist Gustav Klimt. I can’t wait to read that one!

You can find out more about Lisa Medved and her work here.

The Engraver’s Secret is published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2024.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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