Girl on the make

In the Company of the Courtesan

Sarah Dunant <em>Little, Brown, 408pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 03160296

Novels by women that feature a male narrator tend to be rare, and many share an odd trait: the man has something wrong with him, mentally or physically. Perhaps women can't fully imagine what it must be like to inhabit a body without a womb, or perhaps we believe men to be less evolved beings than ourselves. At any rate, it is strange how often these male narrators are dwarves. In 2003, Debbie Taylor published an excellent erotic novel, The Fourth Queen, narrated by a dwarf; now we have Sarah Dunant's tale about Fiammetta Bianchini, a 16th-century Italian courtesan, narrated by her similarly vertically challenged companion Bucino.

Dunant's story begins with a bang, as the Holy Roman emperor's army blows a hole in the wall of Rome, "letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops". Fiammetta has already laid her plans for defence in the form of a banquet. When the first invaders arrive, she opens her doors and welcomes them to her table and bed, thus earning her household an immunity of sorts. Yet though her actions save her life, and that of Bucino, she is shorn of her glorious golden hair and escapes only with such jewels as the two of them can swallow while pretending to pray. It's a gorgeously funny start to a rip-roaring tale in which gutsy vulgarity and ferocious academic intelligence go hand in hand.

Half-starved, the pair make their way to Venice, which Fiammetta left as a 14-year-old virgin when she was sold by her mother. As the most successful courtesan in Rome, she is not only ravishing but witty and accomplished - the mistress of a cardinal, and lampooned by the scurril-ous satirist Aretino, whose path will cross theirs again, like many Roman refugees of the time. Fiammetta expects to meet her mother living in comfort on what she has sent back to Venice, but instead finds her dead and the house a filthy wreck. Worse is to come when their most precious jewel, a great ruby, is stolen - either by the old servant who used to tend the mother, or by a mysterious blind healer called La Draga. The courtesan and the dwarf have to start all over again, in a city brimming with competition from young women almost as clever and accomplished as Fiammetta - a city that Bucino hates and fears, but which, with the help of a Jewish jewel expert, a Turkish merchant and a book of pornography, Fiammetta must conquer or die.

Love is the only thing that a successful courtesan has to fear and, sure enough, it strikes once Fiammetta has found a new list of rich patrons. The stratagems and subtleties she employs are gorgeously described, from the lotions and potions with which she keeps her skin smooth, her breath sweet and her hair gold to the second-hand clothes she haggles over to conceal their poverty. Dunant convincingly recreated Renaissance Florence in The Birth of Venus, but here she is even better. The charms of Venice are mingled with those of Fiammetta, who studies her face "as if it was a map of the ocean, her own trade route to the Indies", and who endures sodomy to keep her patrons satisfied and her womb empty. When she falls in love with a young aristocrat as beautiful as herself, her explanation that she needed "a little sweetness in with all the bloated flesh and belches" makes her only more sympathetic. Dunant's heroine is no more a feminist than Moll Flanders or Scarlett O'Hara, but she embodies the injustice and inhumanity of the Catholic Church's attitude to women and sex. She is never condemned for selling her body, and sees her beauty as a gift from God by which she can earn an honest living. A parti-cularly enjoyable scene shows how the Venetian courtesans use Mass for dalliance and seduction, and "without a word being said, the fish swim into the net".

The conceit is that Fiammetta is the model for Titian's celebrated Venus of Urbino, featured on the jacket, and the painter, like Aretino, has a small part to play in Fiammetta's success. Dunant has used the formula before, in The Birth of Venus, but here she handles it more adroitly, partly because its plot works better, and partly because Bucino is such an engaging narrator. The last quarter of the story is less satisfactory than what has preceded it, as the dwarf unravels a secret about the blind healer La Draga. Nevertheless, if intelligent historical fiction is at all to your taste, it doesn't come more vividly enjoyable than this.

Amanda Craig's most recent novel is Love in Idleness (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war