In the middle of Paris is a medieval museum, the Musée nationale du Moyen Age, also known as the Cluny, and built over old Roman baths. It is quite a nice museum in my humble, ignorant-amateur opinion. One of the most interesting things in the museum is a set of six fabulous tapestries, showing a woman with a unicorn (and a lion).
A second set of seven unicorn tapestries is located at the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan. As tapestries, they are also fabulous, but these represent medieval, or for that matter, modern, brutality, showing the unicorn being hunted. They are also less clever, as the Paris tapestries are designed to represent the five senses.
The fascinating Cluny tapestries were the inspiration for a novel by Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and Unicorn (and isn’t Chevalier a perfect name for someone writing a novel that partly takes place in medieval France?). Ostensibly, the novel is about how the tapestries were created, and we do get that story. A tale about historical objects could potentially be boring, rather mechanically describing them and sticking meticulously to historical fact. Chevalier fortunately does not fall into that trap.
Instead, she focuses on the human beings who create these objects. Using a bit of real historical knowledge, most of Chevalier’s story is fictional, and in writing it, she has created real people. Best of all, she has kept her attention on the people and their fears and passions and weaknesses. The tapestries end up serving as a kind of background and device to hold together the stories of the people.
There are scenes and characters in the book who actually have little, if anything, to do with creating the tapestries, and I would call this a strength, as they help to keep the focus on the human beings involved in the story. The characters are diverse, and for me there were some unexpected surprises.
I would also cite two interesting writing techniques that Chevalier uses. (1) Each chapter of the book is told in first person, but changing each time to a different character, with some repeats. This allows us to get very different points of view. In spite of those changes, the story consistently moves forward in time. (2) Chevalier observed the tapestries closely, and real details of the weavings, so fixed and unchangeable in our world, become fluid artistic questions in the novel, not yet settled or answered. As the book was printed, a good decision was made to include images of parts of the tapestries, so that the reader can refer to them.
This is a book that aims mostly to be fun and entertaining, and it is. It is also a well written book with characters who hold the interest as human beings.