Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough is a novel in verse about a female painter named Artemesia Gentileschi. The novel encompasses events from her later teenage years.
Artemesia grew up in Rome in the 1600s. She was the oldest of three siblings, and the only daughter. Her mother passed away when she was young and Artemesia was faced with the choice of becoming a nun, or working as an apprentice for her father, who is a painter. The path she follows is her father’s apprentice. As it turns out, she had more talent than her father and this does not go unnoticed. Her father uses her talent to take him farther in the world of art. He even hires her a tutor to improve her talent, and also to find his way into improving his status as a painter.
Artemesia lets herself hope that things will turn around for her and that her fate will improve. But it soon becomes apparent that things are not what they seem to be. The man her father hires to teach her, rapes her. She screams and fights and no one comes to save her. Then Artemesia is left with a choice. Does she remain silent? Or does she take her story public?
This book was fantastic. I’ve really grown to love books that are told through verse. They make for really quick reads and they’re often written so beautifully. I know that they won’t be for everyone because not everyone loves modern poetry. However, I was deeply moved by Artemesia’s story.
Artemesia faces something in Blood Water Paint that is still difficult to face nowadays: telling her story and seeking justice for what was done to her. So many rapes go unreported now, and the thought of even trying to go forward with having your rapist prosecuted in the 1600s is terrifying. It is especially horrific for Artemesia because the crime in the eyes of her society isn’t that she was raped, it was that she was her father’s property and she was defiled and therefore devalued. She couldn’t bring her case forward on her own, her father had to do it for her. I don’t want to go too in depth into the story of her trial and case, but it’s beautifully written for a topic that is so horrendous in concept.
Artemesia’s story is intermingled with two other young women who faced inconceivable odds and came out victorious. Their stories are told through flashback, with Artemesia’s mother telling Artemesia their stories as bedtime tales while she’s pregnant with what was supposed to be Artemesia’s baby sister. She tells of Susanna who was watched while she bathed by elders of her village and nearly stoned to death because of it, and of Judith who saved her people from an oncoming army by seducing the general and beheading him when he was asleep.
The three stories intermingle beautifully and combine to make a powerful feminist story. The descriptions of the injustices towards women are deeply moving, but they’re also deeply horrific. I was mesmerized by the book. It was hard to put it down. However, I initially picked it up during the school day, so I did have to put it down.
On the whole it took me a couple of days to finish this book, though I’m sure I could have finished it in a couple of hours if I had sat down to read it. I was deeply compelled by Artemesia’s story, and it is definitely one that is still relevant today. I was so compelled that after I finished reading it, I stayed up later to read about Artemesia’s life on Wikipedia because I needed to make sure that everything turned out okay for her. She had a really fascinating life.
My overall rating for this book was five stars. I had an intense reaction to the book, and deeply empathised with Artemesia’s story. When I initially heard about it from a friend, I wasn’t really that interested, but the more I saw it and heard about it, the more interested I became. Then when I saw it in the library at my school, I knew I had to read it. I’m so glad I did. This is a book that I highly recommend if you like books in verse, historical fiction, or stories that are deeply moving. It’s quite the skill to make you feel with so few words, and so Joy McCullough has my respect. I’m a fan!