The gift — and it was that, because it made me draw a deep breath in, like a gasp, then a long sigh of delight which led, finally, to sleep — came three-quarters of the way into “The Marriage Portrait,” Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novel of the short life and suspicious death of Lucrezia de Medici who, barely a teenager, was married to the powerful, mercurial and impatient Duke of Ferrara and, in less than three years, was dead.
As Lucrezia, just 16, stumbles towards her inevitable death — tuberculosis or poison — she is tortured by terror, doubt and defiance. Sleep eludes her almost entirely and, in O’Farrell’s wondrous prose, takes on a personality that transforms it into yet another active and menacing character in the story:
Sleep will not come for her; it is a steed she cannot catch or harness; it throws her off, it takes flight if she comes near, it refuses her entreaties.
O’Farrell does that rare thing, describing the known in novel ways and making the familiar fresh again.