Reviewed by Mollie Waters
The challenge of writing historical fiction is finding the balance between factual events and the fictional story the author tries to weave into that reality. In his work Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans, Michael Llewellyn finds that balance by crafting a tale that is rich in both history and imagination.
Creole Son tells the story of Edgar Degas, a famous Parisian artist, and his 1872 visit to New Orleans. During the Prussian Siege of Paris, Edgar experienced first-hand the horrors of war. Suffering from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Edgar leaves a troubled France to visit his Creole relations in America. Hoping to find peace as well as inspiration in his mother’s homeland, Edgar is instead dumbfounded when, at the very moment of his arrival at the train depot, he and his family members witness the murder of an unpopular politician. Has Edgar simply traded one volatile country for another?
Even though Edgar finds Reconstruction politics confusing, he is more disturbed by New Orleans’ miscegenational caste system. When his two younger brothers, René and Achille, point out a sang-melée, Edgar cannot believe the woman is not white. Yet, when he later becomes involved with this same woman, Cybéle, who becomes his muse as well as his paramour, Edgar realizes that New Orleans’ racial melting pot has reached a dangerous boiling point, which, when combined with the city’s civil unrest and political corruption, puts Edgar at the center of another potentially explosive situation.
The beauty of Creole Son is its historical depth and accuracy. For readers not familiar with Edgar Degas, they will learn how he and his peers, including his good friend Édouard Manet, began to move away from Neo-classicism towards Impressionism. Llewellyn effortlessly blends the art world along with a thorough understanding of its terms and technicalities into his work, but he does so in such a way that readers without a major in art will still be able to understand its principles.
Llewellyn also brings the political complications of Reconstruction to the forefront of his novel. Edgar’s brothers along with their uncle Michel Musson are part of groups in opposition to Radical Republican Governor Henry Warmoth and his constituents. Political issues dominate a great deal of the plot’s overall conflict, but the author makes the politics engaging instead of weighty.
Also appearing in the novel is voodoo queen Marie Laveau, for what work about New Orleans in the 1800s is complete without her? Her role is minor, though the conspiracies occurring at her club, Maison Blanche, become pivotal in a foiled assassination attempt.
Although Llewellyn makes much use of history in his work, Creole Son’s main focus is Edgar and the associations he forms with his New Orleans kin. In particular, Edgar’s platonic relationship with his sister-in-law Estelle is one of the story’s key concerns. Edgar truly loves Estelle, a woman he would have selected as his own wife had not some type of sexual dysfunction frustrated his hopes. Now married to René, Estelle remains Edgar’s most faithful friend, but the two share more than family. Estelle is almost completely blind, and Edgar feels particularly drawn to her upon realizing his own eyesight has started to fail him.
Edgar’s bond with his siblings is also explored. Edgar notices many changes in his two younger brothers, and not all of those changes are welcomed. Having lived in New Orleans for many years now, René and Achille have adapted to their new surroundings with surprising quickness. Unfortunately, they have also adopted some of the South’s attitudes, mainly racism. René in particular is appalled when Edgar becomes involved with Cybéle, and the two brothers’ loyalty is put to the test when Edgar refuses to give up his lover.
Author of seventeen books as well as multiple travel articles, Michael Llewellyn brings New Orleans alive in Creole Son. Expertly blending fact and fiction, Llewellyn crafts an enjoyable novel that readers will delight in discovering.
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