…the tarnished nameplate fixed to the wall: Begijnhof Sint-Catharine. Passing a gatehouse, they emerge into a large courtyard. Brick buildings on all sides rise three-storeys high, each façade decorated with crow-stepped gables, typical of sixteenth-century houses of the Low Countries. A cobblestone drive borders the square with a garden in the centre.
(Chapter 24)

A city such as Antwerp, with a history stretching back to ancient Roman times, is rich with architectural detail. I’ve always loved cities that mix their heritage with modern designs: the eclectic mix of old cobblestone streets next to sleek shop fronts, step-gabled rooftops next to polished steel and glass façades.

Old and modern architectural details are scattered throughout The Engraver, linking the past with the present, emphasising the discrepancy between long-ago traditions and modern ideas, highlighting the ways in which the characters acknowledge their past and deal with their present.

This juxtaposition between past and present is emphasized through the book’s dual timeline, allowing readers to experience the city in the seventeenth century and modern times. Visiting her father’s place of employment for the first time, Antonia views the traditional Flemish step-gabled façade of the Rubens family home and next door, the unfamiliar Italianate façade of the painter’s studio. Two disparate styles side-by-side, at odds with one another and yet somehow harmonious. Antonia, too, is at odds with her life: adoring her family’s stability and traditions, while yearning to break free and make a name for herself in a male-dominated world.

Four hundred years later, through windows blurred with rain, Charlotte stands in her apartment and makes out the Gothic steeple of the cathedral and the bell tower of Sint-Jacobskerk. She is surrounded by the trappings of her modern-day life: motorcycles zooming past the window, mobile phones buzzing, computers providing data with the tap of a few keys. She is firmly focused on her future, yet the ghosts of the past are never far away, toying with her memories, urging her to uncover their secrets.

Old and new blur together, incongruous and yet compatible, reminding us that the present is always shadowed by the past.


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