Books: The merchant, his wife and her lover

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach Heinemann pounds 14.99
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If art is illusion, real life can be equally counterfeit. A pregnant woman's swollen belly may turn out to be nothing more than a velvet cushion; a humble bulb can metamorphose into a rare breed of tulip, valuable beyond avarice. Deborah Moggach characteristically delights in the random workings of destiny and the unpredictability of human responses to circumstances. In her latest novel, Tulip Fever, a scintillating story of lust, deception and retribution, she exposes the trickiness of fate, as a devout young wife gambles recklessly with her reputation, and her lover stakes all on one feverish throw of the dice.

Anxious to preserve a lasting image of his good fortune, Cornelis Sandvoort, a prosperous Dutch merchant, employs a talented young artist, Jan van Loos, to paint his portrait. The work is carefully choreographed to represent domestic and worldly wellbeing: the wealthy burgher on display in his library, his modest wife seated at his side. Sunlight streams through the latticed window to illuminate a valuable collection of shells and fossils, while, on a richly draped table, the insignia of power are balanced by the emblems of morality: a globe to symbolise the merchant's worldwide ventures, scales to weigh his sins on the Day of Judgement, and a skull that recalls the frailty of human flesh.

Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas. At the age of 61, Cornelis has yet to learn the truth of Ecclesiastes's opening salvo: "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity." And why should Cornelis worry? True, his beloved first wife and two small boys have died, depriving him of the stake in the future on which he had set his hopes. True, too, that these apparently senseless deaths have rocked his faith in God. But life has been kind to him in the material sense: he has a house stocked with valuable paintings on the prestigious Herengracht, and has latterly acquired a new young wife, the beautiful Sophia, whose soft skin and compliant body bring fresh life to his shrivelled flesh and blighted hopes. Blinded by complacency, Cornelis fails to read the message of his own portrait. It is a myopia that will prove disastrous, as with each caressing stroke of his brush, van Loos lures Sophia away from obedient wifehood. By the time the painting is finished, the marriage that it was intended to celebrate has been irrevocably shattered.

This is already an interesting enough scenario, but Moggach adds an additional lustre to her morality tale by setting it in the Amsterdam of the 1630s, at a time when tulipomania was at its height. In an economic climate in which one coveted bulb could represent the value of a working man's annual salary, or even the price of a rich man's home, the temptation to gamble for higher and higher stakes in the tulip market proved irresistible. Fortunes - and lives - were lost in the process. For the penniless Jan van Loos, trading in tulip futures offers a unique opportunity to finance his elopement with Sophia, and he is prepared to sacrifice anything - his art and, ironically, even sex itself - to acquire the rare specimen that can make or break his future.

Tulip Fever is beautifully written, a verbal kaleidoscope that flicks rapidly through vivid sensuous experience: the brilliance of hyacinths in spring sunshine, the mysterious shadows of autumn mist, the aroma of wine or an almond cake, the touch and feel and taste of naked flesh. Character and atmosphere are painstakingly touched in through myriad tiny details: a housemaid's prophylactics against ill fortune, the rituals that accompany childbearing, an artist's tools of trade. The racy narrative is built up through a series of vignettes that recall Dutch paintings of the period, several of which are reproduced in the book: a young woman reading a letter, an inquisitive maid lingering at an open doorway, two women gossiping as they prepare food. These apparently transparent images provide a teasing commentary on the action, reinforcing the questions at the heart of the novel: not simply how far can we believe what we see, but equally important, how far is what we see dependent on our fantasy and desire? How far does art itself represent an act of self-delusion in which both artist and viewer collude?

"Trust not to appearances", writes Jacob Cats in one of the 'Moral Emblems' that preface the chapters, but if this is Moggach's thesis, she explores it with a featherlight touch, keeping the tension at fever-pitch until the final hilarious - and entirely unexpected - climax. It involves a donkey, some herring, and a tall tale of magic transformation. Vanitas vanitatum, but what fun can be had along the way.