Book review: Midnight Blue

I bought this book at an airport bookstore in Amsterdam’s Schipol heading back home from a long flight. It then sat for two years on my bookshelf before I remembered about it and picked it up. Am I glad I did!

Written by Dutch novelist Simone van der Vlugt, this novel was translated to English from the original Dutch.

The novel opens in 1654, during Holland’s Golden Age. As the story opens, Catrin, a twenty-five-year-old northern farmer (and amateur artist, in her scarce free time) is overeseeing the dismantling of her farm following the death of her husband. Catrin, who has always dreamed of living in a town, is ready to start her life again. She has arranged to work as a housekeeper in the nearest market town as she saves up and looks for opportunities.

Circumstances bring Catrin first to Amsterdam and eventually to Delft, where the Dutch porcelain industry is starting off. Finding herself in the right place at the right time, Catrin is able to carve out a place for herself as an artist in the fledgling industry and provides us – the readers – with a front-row seat to life in 17th century Holland.

“Sometimes, when you think you understand life with all its highs and lows, when you think it can no longer throw you with all its terrible surprises, it takes a turn you hadn’t forseen.”

This was an engaging read, with Catrin’s character providing us into a glimpse into life during Holland’s Golden Age – observing the growing wealth provided by trade and the shipping companies, meeting great artists Rembrandt and Vermeer, watching the canals of Amsterdam being built and sensing the panic that set in as the Plague spreads across the country.

Unlike too many historical novels I read today, most of the details and lives in Midnight Blue felt wedded to the times, including so many young deaths, high rates of maternal mortality and stillbirths and the basic struggle to survive. This was an appealing glimpse into seventeenth century Dutch life and the burgeoning Delft porcelain industry told through interesting characters and engaging storylines.

I see this is the first historical novel van der Vlugt has had translated into English, but I certainly hope there will be many more.

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