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Garden of Venus

by Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak’s new novel is raw historical fiction. A retelling and re-imagining of the tumultuous life of Countess Sophie Potocka, it takes an unwavering look at the human body and mind in protracted decline.

Garden of Venus tells the story of the beautiful Sophie from several shifting perspectives. Her life (from 1760-1822) is one of bitter repression: losing her virginity at age 13, she is cast off, left to claw her way out of poverty and into power and privilege. Serving as mistress to a steady succession of increasingly powerful men in the courts of Europe, she gains wealth and notoriety, while happiness remains elusive.

The novel explores trails of blood and nation, questioning how secrets are kept and how they unravel the keeper, and how glory shines and fades. The telling is engaging – at times riveting – leaving behind a visceral sense of a woman’s arduous life. The story of a “female Napoleon,” as Stachniak describes her, Sophie’s influence touches events from the partition of Poland to the French revolution. Yet the novel’s multiplying set of subplots, borne of this varied life, lend both exciting complexity and frustrating distractions to the Countess’s story.

At times, the historical details – based on Sophie’s real life story as pieced together from biographies, diaries, and other documents – halt the narrative. Long quotations distract from an otherwise compelling read, while Stachniak’s faithful description of Sophie’s long list of suitors gives the narrative an encyclopaedic tone toward the end.

Stachniak writes with brief, often poetic sentences, managing to create a rich sense of place and period through evocative details. In a novel that continually returns to the image of the garden, both lush and rotting, both good and evil, it seems fitting that bodily functions – sex, birth, death – are presented in dual images of horror and bliss. Similarly, life for the persecuted Sophie is in constant flux between glory and despair, dependent on the whims of her suitors and the tastes of European high society.