16th century portrait of Lucrezia de Medici by artist Alessandro Allori

16th century portrait of Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara, by artist Alessandro Allori

Haven’t we all been tortured by those nights when, no matter how hard we try or how desperate we are for rest, we cannot fall asleep — often when we need it most? It is such a universal experience — such a non-novel event — that describing it risks cliché. So I was enchanted, on a recent sleepless night, when I came across a completely fresh way to imagine those nights when you are dreading the too-soon arrival of morning, or wishing it would just come already.

Irish-born novelist Maggie O'Farrell and the jacket of her new novel, "The Marriage Portrait'

Maggie O'Farrell

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.

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