Did Count St Germain, a European courtier and brilliant alchemist die in 1784 or had he discovered the secret to eternal life? In 1967 a Parisian, named Richard Chanfray appeared on TV apparently changing lead to gold and claiming to be Count St Germain.
This mysterious figure weaves in and out of the life of Rowena, a student of Art, as she returns to Amsterdam in 1976 to research a book on Dutch food through the ages. Four years earlier, she and her mother had met Meneer Surmount, a Frenchman dressed in 18th century style in a café near the red light district and now, her mother has died and her thoughts return to the mysterious stranger.
Juxtaposed with Rowena’s complicated adventures in Amsterdam is an account of her poverty-stricken childhood in Liverpool. Always dressed in hand-me-downs, her first new dress was a vivid memory spoilt by the actions of her best friend Sylvia, who tore the skirt. So enraged was Rowena that she pulled Sylvia’s plait until the roots bled and tied the girl by her hair to the centre of a manhole cover. But within a day they were friends again.
This intriguing book is packed with references to the artists of the city, to poets and philosophers, enriching the images created by the author. The prose is as rich as poetry. For instance, “The chef’s face was glowing from the heat of the cooking flames. Smoke plumed up from the butter he ladled onto the sizzling hobs, beneath copper pans which hung from a rack like Awards of Merit.”
Rowena (or the author) has an artist’s observation skills. Each Dutch scene, every character in Amsterdam is described vividly. She meets a man wearing five layers of pink brocade, velvet and leather. Although he was about 60, “he had the eyes of an enthusiastic teenager; they were ready to take on the world.”
This is a book to savour, to indulge in a vibrant yet mysterious world steeped in the history of the city. It is quite unlike any other novel I have read but I very much enjoyed it.