In Lisbon in 1755, a devastating earthquake changes the city forever. The months just before the event are the intriguing backdrop for Stephanie Renee Dos Santos’ vivid debut novel, Cut from the Earth. Closely examining the overlooked origin of the art of the figura de convite style of tilework, this richly detailed novel both arrests the reader with the sensory pleasures Dos Santos provides and compels the reader to continue on. A stunning blend of intriguing plot and lyrical language, this novel delights.
The figura de convite style of tilework, life-sized, cut-out tiles of figures, welcomed visitors when they visited palaces, and were produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are only found in Portugal. Dos Santos says not much is known about the creator of the style, other than the initials PMP. Her novel imagines just who PMP was and what the creator’s life was like. The mere concept of the novel enthralled me, as I like mysteries, as I like the teasing out of things we have no way of knowing. I was not disappointed!
Not only the artwork, but the tension between the Inquisition, the Catholic Church’s question to do away with any heresy against itself, and the Enlightenment, an attempt to bring reason and science to society, rather than being controlled by the Church, saturate the novel. It’s personified in the main character, Pêro Manuel Pires, a renowned Portuguese tilemaker, who is also dedicated to freeing slaves and hiring them in his tile factory. Unfortunately, this and the risqué designs of someone thought not worthy (avoiding a spoiler here!) of creating them brings Pires to the attention of the Inquisition, where his faith is questioned, and his livelihood and his very life are threatened.
Even the tragedy that strikes Lisbon is told with such force and detail it is as beautifully described as the tile making. Dos Santos immerses her reader into this world, both the time and place, knowing, like a good conductor, when to ask the horns for more, when to ask the woodwinds to back off. This novel is just stunning.
Interweaving charming scenes of family life with brutal scenes of the other side of society at that time, Dos Santos knows when to apply the pressure and when to relieve it. For instance, Pêro and his lovely daughters, Constanza and Isabela, view the display at a bakery shop: “Isabela lingered in front of a pastry shop, its pane filled with golden egg yolk custards and doughy delicacies of barriga de freiras, ‘belly of nuns.’” I find that so sweet and beautiful. The shops they pass are described in such gorgeous depth that you want to really be there. No, you think you are there.
The opening scene gives us this hint of cruelty: “Pêro glanced at his own right hand, to the stumped third and fourth finger, his mouth a tight white line.” We know this has been done to him, and we learn just how barbarously it was done.
When the earthquake strikes, it brings tragedy and leaves everything in jeopardy.
Combining rich historical facts and imagination where needed, Stephanie has created one of the most memorable books of the year, one I can’t wait to re-read. I long for the next installment.