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~ INTRODUCTION ~
I bought this paperback from a second-hand book shop in Marseille after reading its teaser at the back and becoming intrigued. I love a good and complex story set in the past, whether it is 20th century war-time, Middles Ages or the Renaissance. Having had a busy summer it did take me about a few weeks to finish the 400 pages, now in retrospect, was it worth it?
~ ABOUT THE AUTHOR ~
Most known as the author of Interview with the Vampire and its sequels, American novelist Ann Rice (born in 1941) - somewhat deviating from her usual gothic genre - penned Cry to Heaven in 1982 between her first and second novel of the Vampire Chronicles of which she produced ten in total. She has also written religious themed novels, notably two on the life of Jesus Christ.
~ THE PLOT ~
In 18th century Italy, our protagonist, Tonio is 15 years old. To his knowledge, he's the only heir of a rich and influential Venetian family until things take a horrifying turn. He is castrated by a vengeful bother, he didn't even know existed. Tonio flees Venice and joins the castrati in the Conservatory of Naples to study music and singing and meets Guido, castrated at the tender age of 4, who becomes his teacher. Having been deprived of his manhood against his will, Tonio's thirst for vengeance and justice is inevitable. Growing up in the conservatory, having Guido, his mentor and the rest of the castrati as his 'family', will Tonio be able to reconcile himself to his fate or take revenge at all costs?
~ CHARACTERISATION ~
I found the two main characters but especially Tonio well-developed and shown from an intimate point of view showing him as a real, thinking and feeling person. Unsurprisingly as we'd expect from a best-selling author. However, given the subject matter of the book, I find this an extraordinary achievement. We have no first-hand practical knowledge of the era, let alone any insight into the phyche of the castrati, the author managed to create a sensitive, realistic and approachable, yet well-anchored and an inside-out renaissance - baroque persona fitting perfectly into his historical backdrop.
~ WRITING STYLE ~
The book is easy to read and involving from the start. It is essentially historical fiction and a very well-researched one at that. It only spans a short time of about four years, the coming of age of Tonio, it is indeed detailed, depicting his and his companions' life almost on a daily basis.
The descriptions are accurate and informative; I especially enjoyed parts where Rice depicted different garments men and women wore at the time. She did a good job at portraying the castrati themselves and their exquisite voices. As expected from a gothic author, Rice does not shy away from graphic details either let it be scenes of lovemaking, or the tragic - of course illegal - operation itself.
~ MY EXPERIENCE ~
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cry to Heaven though it does take about a third of the book for the story to really take off. It did not mind this as there's plenty of historical and cultural details to learn. Such as the story itself, the characterisation also unfolds gradually, relayed piece by piece to the reader.
Of course, I also wanted to find out what a castrato voice sounded like. Is it really as if 'angels were singing' as people of the times believed? Well, I did listen to an unfortunately not-so-good quality recording of the last Italian castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (you can find it on youtube) whose voice was recorded in 1904 for Gramophone. It sounds like a soprano but with a somewhat deeper tone, but that was because he was around 45 years old and singers do lose some of their range over time.
I rather imagined Tonio as Farinelli, a celebrated castrato singer of the 18th century, a time when Cry to Heaven is set. Farinelli did have those angelic looks and childlike charm (see a photo of him on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farinelli) - just the way Anne Rice described Tonio.
~ CONCLUSION ~
I'm happy to have discovered and read this book. Whether you like Rice's other works or not, definitely give it a go especially if you like historical fiction. 'Cry to Heaven' is different from her other novels, it's more illustrative and 'baroque' in a sense but you can still recognise her unique storytelling. To sum up, a rich and engaging historical fiction that knows no taboos. I would definitely be reading a sequel if there was one.
~ PRICE / AVAILABILITY ~
In print and can be bought from Amazon: £2.50 - £5.99.
Thanks for reading.
©powered by lillybee also posted on Ciao UK
Anne Rice is, of course, best known for her Vampire Chronicles, but with Cry to Heaven she has written an historical novel which draws the reader into eighteenth century Byzantium, or more specifically, Venice and Instanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known) and into the lost world of the castrati.
Castrati were singers who, to retain the purity of their voices, were castrated before their voices broke. These young men were prized above all others for the quality of their singing voices, earning huge sums of money and being feted by the society of the day.
Synopsis: In eighteenth-century Italy, the Castrati recreated heaven on earth. Their exquisite voices soared above the glittering world of courtiers and nobility. Those who achieved fame were showered with riches and sexual favours, but their success also hid a terrible sadness. Tonio, of noble birth, is the victim of a vengeful brother. Disinherited and forced to join the ranks of the Castrati, he plans his revenge while striving to become the greatest of all singers. Guido, sacrificed to the knife at an early age, composes opera and dreams of the perfect voice to give it life. He discovers Tonio and becomes his teacher. As together they reach the very pinnacle of success, Tonio is pushed to the extremes of endurance as he tries to resolve his lust for glory, and for vengeance.
Not having much of a musical background nor an in depth knowledge of religious history, I admit before reading this book I knew virtually nothing about the castrati. At the end of this book, I probably knew rather more than I wanted to!
Now that isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, very much. But, in true Anne Rice style, her descriptions of the act of castration are accurate, no doubt, but also very gory. The description early in the book of Tonio being sold by his brother and undergoing this dreadful operation, however, immediately immerses the reader into this strange world and, like Tonio, because of the harrowing description of the act, one is left feeling bewildered, angry and lusting for revenge on his behalf.
Not only is Ms Rice well known for her writing of gory detail but also for the sexual content of her books, some might say bordering on the pornographic. And, it has to be said, there is a great deal of sexual content to this book, not all of it heterosexual. But this is not gratuitous sex. It is there to further embellish the detail of what life was like for the castrati at that time and is entirely appropriate to the story.
Sex and violence together with accurately researched history, make this a cracking good read. I learned a lot about a world that no longer exists and Anne Rice's lyrical writing style makes it a pleasure to read. Tonio and Guido are engaging and appealing lead characters and I cared about what happened to them. I have to say, there were quite a few Americanisms in the prose which seemed slightly anachronistic coming from the mouths of eighteenth century Italians but if you can overlook such things, you will enjoy this book.
As I said, Cry to Heaven is rather heavy on the sexual content and if you have a problem with reading very descriptive sex scenes or are remotely homophobic, this book may not be for you. I know this won't be everyone's cup of tea but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The most recent edition published was back in 2004 and copies of this book can be picked up for a song (pun intended).