The Girl with the Painted Face – Gabrielle Kimm

A door stands ajar. She flings herself at it, opening it wide; then, slipping in behind it, she pushes it shut, leaning up with her back pressed hard against it, mouth open, chest heaving. Her breath is ragged and rasping, her throat close to tearing at each gasp. Her heart is pounding so wildly she can feel it in her neck, her ears, her face; her damaged finger is hot and pulsing.

We meet our heroine, Sofia, running away from a man who has accused her of theft. What’s actually happened is that he’s made some incredibly lewd suggestions to our young heroine and having been rejected, has declared her a thief. This being Modena, Italy in 1582, his word will soon spread and Sofia knows she will lose her job as a seamstress.

In the Piazza Vecchio, she comes across a man selling a special elixir:

‘Never again need any of you gentlemen go through the inconvenience – nay, that word simply will not suffice to describe the shame of it: let us say rather the ordeal of facing your with with…how shall I put it?…the contents of your codpiece failing to leap into action as you have been hoping it will…’ The man waggles his eyebrows, gesturing as he speaks with the bottle and a jerk of his hips.

His market place sales tactics aside, Niccolò Zanetti turns out to be a kind, thoughtful man who straps up Sofia’s finger and, days later when she is sick of being propositioned by men assuming her to be a prostitute, helps to find her a position as a seamstress in a group of travelling players.

This introduces a second strand to the novel, that of the Corraggiosi, and in particular, two of their players: Beppe Bianchi and Angelo da Bagnacavallo. Beppe soon becomes Sofia’s love interest but his history is tied to that of the moody and mysterious da Bagnacavallo and it’s a history that comes to threaten them all when the Corraggiosi cross paths with the third strand of the novel, the story of Sebastiano da Correggio.

The Girl with the Painted Face is a historical romance with a dose of thriller. It’s an entertaining and often bawdy read which explores themes of identity – are we the people we present ourselves to be? – and family history – can we escape our family’s past or does it shape our future regardless of our own abilities and desires? The three plot strands keep the narrative moving at a good pace and a couple of nice twists towards the end make the somewhat inevitable conclusion more interesting than it otherwise might have been.

If I have any complaints, it’s the number of times that people – mostly men – were said to be licking their lips. It made me shudder with repulsion every time but maybe that was Kimm’s intention!

Overall, this is an enjoyable read. One for those who prefer their historical fiction more in the vein of Philippa Gregory than Hilary Mantel.


Thanks to Sphere for the review copy.