Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 288 pages; 2004. Translated from the French by Robert Buss.
Set in Holland during the 1670s, this short, cinematic story is essentially a love triangle between two people and a flower – the much sought-after black tulip, tulipa negra.
The opening scenes, bloody and gruesome, put the reader in the thick of the action right at the outset, but this is deceptive: the story is not the ghastly violent one the first chapter may lead you to expect. Instead, it is a gentle, well-plotted romance interwoven with real life events from Dutch history. But on a slightly deeper level it is also a tale about righting wrongs, fighting tyranny and seeking justice.
When Cornelius van Baerle, a humble tulip grower, is (wrongly) thrown into jail it looks like he is going to lose his life — at worst — and lose his chance to grow the perfect specimen of the tulip negra — at best. His tulip-growing rival, the “evil” Isaac Boxtel, sees this as the perfect opportunity to thwart van Baerle’s chance of winning the top horticultural prize.
But then Rosa, the jailor’s beautiful and headstrong daughter, finds a way to help van Baerle achieve his heart’s desire despite the odds and the looming figure of William of Orange.
The Black Tulip might sound a little soppy, but the plot is very good and moves along with great momentum. The writing could do with a little judicious editing here and there, and the ending is wholly predictable, but overall this is a simple tale, relatively well told and a fascinating insight into a time known as “tulipmania”.