I reviewed Maylis de Kerangal’s The Birth of a Bridge back in 2015. It left me admiring but not entirely sure what I felt about it so I passed on her next novel, Mend the Living, wondering if I’d missed out when I read other bloggers’ reviews. That and its art theme made me put up my hand for her new novel, Painting Time, which follows one of three students who meet in Brussels while on a trompe l’œil course so intense they emerge from it blinking in the light of a world they’d almost forgotten.
They have to leave the studio now, the way we leave childhood, and reacquaint themselves with the outside, return to a world they had abandoned without even realising it.
Twenty-year-old Paula is surprised to find herself admitted on the six-month course by the austere woman who will teach her and twenty others the skills they need to trick the eyes of the world. The work is intense, both physically and mentally, as is the partying when there’s time. Paula shares her small apartment with Jonas, the star of the course, barely registering each other for months so immersed are they in sheer hard grind. When Jonas helps Paula with a piece of work, teaching her to look for the story behind the object she’s recreating, a connection is made. Kate, a young Scottish woman who will excel at reproducing the most precious of marbles for the rich, makes up the third of the trio. Once the course is over, Paula returns to her parents’ flat in Paris, her first commission to paint a sky on a nursery ceiling for a neighbour. Slowly, she builds a reputation, one job leading to another. It’s a precarious, peripatetic life with little opportunity for emotional involvement. Jonas and Kate remain her closest friends despite their rare meetings. When Jonas is unable to fulfil a lengthy commission to reproduce the cave paintings of Lascaux, he passes it to Paula and with it the chance to lose herself in this most ancient story.
…it’s April, the re-greening, skin of shoulders and ankles reappearing on pavements, the air tart, sparkling, a mouthful of chlorophyll, the sky crystalline, the colours of the city reignited…
One of my reservations about The Birth of a Bridge was de Kerangal’s writing style but this time it was the aspect I found the most pleasing. Detailed and vividly visual, her language summons up images beautifully, exploring the theme of reproduction and facsimile through the process of trompe l’œil. Their teacher calls them forgers, never letting them lose sight of the fact they’re not artists, while Paula’s Italian lover calls himself the charlatan. De Kerangal packs her novel full of stories as Paula immerses herself in the history of the object she’s to reproduce, knowing that a detail missed will lead to failure; her strabismus making her look harder than most. There’s a wonderful, long and detailed scene in which she walks through a multitude of sets stored at Rome’s Cinecittá as if travelling through time. It’s a most unusual coming-of-age story told in cinematic, vividly evocative language. Rich in anecdotes and erudition, it wears its meticulous research lightly. I think it may be time to get myself a copy of Mend the Living.
MacLehose Press: London 9780857059864 288 pages Hardback