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68. 'The Eyes That Look' by Julia Grigg

Saturday, 13 October 2018



We may have eyes that look – but how clearly do we see?

This compelling novel of art and adventure, Julia Grigg’s debut, is set in the feverish creativity of mid-sixteenth century Italy. Francesco Bassano wants to find out how and why an extraordinary painting was made; the story traces his quest to discover the secrets of the portrait’s past. Francesco’s journey, his coming-of-age, takes him and his questions to Venice, Verona, Maser and Florence. Encountering the High Renaissance’s masters Titian, Veronese and Vasari in the very act of creating and recording the era’s stupendous art and architecture, he is witness to astonishing achievements. Enthralled, he learns of the determination needed for innovation and the sacrifices demanded of an artist if cherished ambition is to become reality. Little by little he unravels what lies behind the painting, gaining new understanding of love, truth and beauty, and of loyalty, devotion and the unbreakable bond between a master and his dogs. However, in delving deeper, the past’s dark side reveals itself: cruelty, inhumanity and human frailty ­­– and Francesco cannot avoid the experience of bitter betrayal.



I was offered a copy of 'The Eyes That Look' in exchange for an honest review the lovely folk over at Bookollective, and when I saw the cover I jumped at the opportunity. 

The images online really do not do the details on the physical book any justice. It is gorgeous. The colours and design of the cover are completely appropriate for the subject matter, and it can't just be me who gets a thrill out of luxuriously thick pages inside a book, right? It really drew me to the book, and is something that will look beautiful on any bookcase or coffee table. I'll be sharing details of the book's cover over on my instagram, so if you are interested to see just what the heck I am raving about you can have a nosy there!

Now onto my review...

'The Eyes That Look' is essentially a mystery, coming of age tale of Francesco Bassano, and his journey to find out more behind the intriguing piece of art by his father Jacopo. Jacopo is reluctant to reveal more about the art work, which displays two hunting dogs prominently as the focus point, and this captures and propels Francesco into the wider world in his quest for answers. His quest takes him on a long journey, and he encounters both the desirables and undesirables of the world, making new friends along the way. 

I don't know enough about 16th Century Italy and the Artists that existed at this time, however Grigg seems to weave the fictitious characters with the factual to help build a strong, and engaging narrative. I think because I have the luxury of no prior knowledge around these figures it made it a more enjoyable read, and I was able to go with the flow a lot more than had it been say, a book based in the heart of Edward III's court. I am always wary of introducing too much poetic license in the historical fiction genre usually, but it did not seem negatively impact on the story itself in this case, as I do not know how much it strays from what is factually known about the artists and figures from the Italian Renaissance referenced. 

It did take me longer to get into the story, in part because it does not move you along at a quick place. The feeling I got when reading was to take my time, and go with the leisurely pace presented to me. I was reading it in the mornings, and evenings during my commute to work, and I think this had an impact on how quickly I was able to immerse myself - I would definitely recommend reading this where you don't have to regularly stop and start. When I did have the opportunity to focus on it for longer periods of time I felt I was able to engage and immerse myself better. 

That being said, Grigg's is clearly knowledgeable about her subject matter, and she writes beautifully. The style is descriptive, but not too much, and I feel a true passion for the work behind the story.  

I especially enjoyed the development of Francesco and Jacopo, as the son learns to look at his father as more than just a parent, and discovers more about him as both artist and individual. There are so many lessons interwoven throughout the pages, many of which can apply to any reader's every day lives. I think it makes the book even more relatable, even though it is set in 16th Century Italy! 

Everything is neatly wrapped up at the end of the book, all loose ends tied and as with the pace throughout the book, gently, and in places, bittersweet. The plot on the whole is one of dark tragedy, heartache and longing; accentuated by hope, and the promise of understanding and acceptance over time. 

I highly recommend this book for those interested in the historical fiction genre, who perhaps are seeking something different from their usual cup of tea. 

Rating: 5/5


About the Author 

Julia Grigg started out in fashion journalism, her first job on Vogue, also writing on the arts, food and travel. She retains an abiding interest in all these subjects but soon moved into a career with UNICEF as a writer and advocate for children’s issues and over many years was deployed to some of the world’s most demanding and complex countries. 

Julia began The Eyes that Look – the secret story of Bassano’s Hunting Dogs while studying for the Bath Spa University Masters in Creative Writing from which she graduated with Distinction. Early drafts of the novel were longlisted for the Exeter First Novel Prize and for the Aurora Metro Virginia Prize for New Writing by Women in English. 

The Eyes that Look was years in the making before a single word was put on the page. Writing it meant Julia could delve deep into the Italian High Renaissance, indulging a lifelong fascination with its art, music and poetry. In the research process she embraced online study, attended the Courtauld Institute summer school and the British Institute in Florence, and spent much time in Italian archives, galleries and churches as well as in trying to master the language. 

Julia is working on the second novel of a planned Renaissance trilogy, involving mid 1500s Rome, Florence and Venice settings and some of the same cast of characters as The Eyes that Look. 

Cornish in origin, Julia divides her time between the UK and Nairobi, Kenya, spending as much time as she can in the West Country, always thrilled to be once again crossing the Tamar. Dogs are another passion; she and her husband share their home with a pair of black and tan dachshunds. 





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