Van Rijn: Too much packed into one story

In Van Rijn, author Sarah Emily Miano delves into the life of the man considered to be the most important artist in Dutch history, Rembrandt van Rijn. The plot follows young publisher Pieter Blaeu who becomes obsessed with Rembrandt and wants to uncover his secrets.

Along the way, we meet a variety of characters, many of whom anyone with a passing knowledge of 17th-century Dutch history will recognize: Jan Six, Baruch Spinoza, Athanasius Kircher and even the corpse from Rembrandt’s work The Anatomy Lesson.

Detailing the personal experiences of the Golden Age artists is tricky, however, since Rembrandt left very little in the way of written records about his life. He kept no diaries or journals and only a few letters survive. Most of what we know comes from public records, including legal disputes over his bankruptcy.

So Miano fictionalises the details, creating diary entries, notes about paint colours, poems and more to add texture to the story. The resulting 475-page novel has an interesting plot that gets lost amidst all the toppings.

The main storyline, from Blaeu’s perspective, strikes the right notes of historical thriller and compelling drama. Miano describes the sights and sounds of Amsterdam with great detail, giving the reader a queasy picture of the colour of a beggar’s teeth and the irritating scent of tobacco.

Yet even if you skip the (substantial) tangents, Miano struggles in moments to create a story that seems authentic to the time and place. Depictions of scenes at a bar read more like a British pub in the 1980s than a 17th-century Dutch drinking establishment.

In one scene, Rembrandt accuses a sex worker of stealing from him by shouting: ‘You wretched creature, where is my purse? Don’t play dumb with me … I know you took it!’ The suspected thief is named Pussy Willow.

Published in 2017, Van Rijn is Miano’s second novel following her 2003 debut    Encyclopaedia Of Snow. Originally from the United States, her biography says she first worked as a chef, tour guide and private eye before turning to writing.

You can get a copy of Van Rijn from the American Book Center. 

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