Five More Novels I’ve Read About Art

This is the second set of novels with an art theme in this series of posts. I introduced the first wondering why I’d read so much recent fiction featuring artists, speculating about a publishing trend Cover image for Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud or that it was simply my own interest in the subject but perhaps it’s because artists often lead interesting lives offering rich pickings for novelists. Whatever the reason, here are five more novels I’ve read about art, four with links to reviews on this blog.

Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is about two artists, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret, who spent 1914 on the Suffolk coast at Walberswick. Freud tells their story from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Thomas with whom the Mackintoshs strike up a friendship. Mackintosh and his wife have been living in the village for a while but when the Defence of the Realm Act comes into force murmurs of suspicion are heard. Mr Mac, as Thomas calls him, is an eccentric figure striding out in his black cape, looking out to sea with his binoculars and speaking in that strange accent. Even Thomas becomes alarmed when he comes across one of their art books with references in German. Freud summons up the Suffolk countryside beautifully as Thomas walks amongst the sights, sounds and smells of a summer’s day hardly believing the carnage taking place just a short voyage away, and the Mackintoshs’ art is lovingly described.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land is also about two artists’ marriage, one acclaimed, the other not, and the young boy they befriend. The summer of 1950 was one of many Edward Hopper spent with his wife, Josephine, on Cape Cod but this year a German orphan, traumatised by war, has come to stay with their neighbours. Jo Hopper is both fiercely possessive of her husband and resentful of the attention he attracts. Her own work is overlooked, despite her many protestations that she’s also an artist, her attempts to secure an exhibition frustrated. Her waspish outspokenness has won her a reputation yet she longs to be accepted. Ten-year-old Michael spends much of his time alone until he meets Jo with whom he forms an unlikely connection. Written in Hickey’s subtle yet precise style, unshowy and often appropriately painterly, it’s a pleasingly nuanced novel.

Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game begins in 1922 with the admission of six Bauhaus students who become inseparable. Eager to assert his financial Cover image for The Hiding Game by Naomi Woodindependence, Paul finds work painting extravagantly florid pieces for rich Americans. When a shocking incident lands Jenö in front of a tribunal, Walter joins Paul determined to earn the money needed to pay off the man Jenö has beaten. Walter has fallen as deeply for Jenö as Paul has for Charlotte, a passion which results in a series of terrible betrayals. Meanwhile the brownshirts, for whom the Bauhaus represents everything they both despise and fear, begin their inexorable march to power. Wood weaves her meticulous research lightly through her gripping story, including celebrated members of the Bauhaus whose works are described with an elegant clarity. This is such an impressive piece of fiction, fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised.

Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. John is a painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief, Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London and Ward works for an agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. The disappearance of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold. The result is a richly textured novel with a cast of astutely observed characters.

Cover image for The Museum of Modern Love by Heather RoseThe performance artist Marina Abramović is the star of Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love which recreates the lives of several people who sit with her during her 75-day piece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For The Art is Present, Abramović sat in the same seat locking eyes with members of the public who had queued for the experience, many overnight outside the gallery. Rose’s novel explores their thoughts and lives, in particular a composer whose wife has been devasted by a massive stroke and is refusing to see him. Abramović’s fascinating life and career is woven seamlessly through Rose’s many-layered novel. It’s an extraordinary piece of fiction, full of erudition and humanity. Rose asked Abramović for permission to fictionalise her work and it seems her subject was delighted with the result given the quote on the back of my paperback edition.

What about you – any fiction about art you’d like to recommend?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here

28 thoughts on “Five More Novels I’ve Read About Art”

  1. Woohoo another of your excellent art book posts! It’s funny, I was thinking about Marina Abramović‘s art piece only yesterday, and that incredible moment when her former lover sits with her. I’ve immediately reserved The Museum of Modern Love at the library and will also look at the Hegarty and the Wood. I think I have a copy of Mr Mac on the shelves somewhere, so thank you for the reminder about that. And I enjoyed the Hickey but not as much as I had hoped. Thank you Susan, bring on the next batch!

    1. Thanks, Liz, and I’m sure there’ll be more to come! The Museum of Modern Love is fabulous, no greater accolade than Abramović‘s endorsement. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it and the others, too.

    1. It was Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best who alerted me to it (perhaps you, too) and it more than lived up to her enthusiastic review. Delighted you loved it, too.

  2. The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro is a great one. I was surprised by how interesting it was to read about the creation of a painting and the process to make it appear several hundred years old. The imagined story of the very real Gardner Museum theft in Boston was great to read about, too, since it’s where I lived at the time.

  3. These all sound great, I think The Narrow Land and The Hiding Game appeal most. I remember the Pat Barker trilogy that begins with Life Class had some great art stuff in, particularly books 1 and 2.

  4. I very much enjoyed the Freud and Wood. A couple of recent ones that may or may not be on your radar: Second Place by Rachel Cusk (I can’t recall if I’ve seen you review her before; she’s definitely a Marmite author!); and Cut Out by Michèle Roberts, which I’m currently reading, and has a thread about an assistant to Matisse.

    1. Sadly, not keen on previous Roberts novels I’ve read and I’m afraid not even an art theme will persuade me to try another Cusk! Glad to hear you enjoyed the Freud and the Wood which made me want to head to Dessau.

      1. My first Roberts novel, though I own a couple of others. I’m enjoying her prose. And this was only the second Cusk novel I’ve been able to get through (after failing at three of her other books!). Will you read Still Life by Sarah Winman? I intend to try that one again sometime.

          1. When God Was a Rabbit was dreadful; I’m hoping Still Life takes after her more recent Tin Man instead! I reviewed the Cusk on Goodreads but will probably put up an excerpt as part of a Booker longlist roundup soon.

  5. Have made a note of the Rennie Mackintosh book – I love his work.

    I tried Museum of Modern Love a few years ago but gave up on it – I think it was the kind of narrative not suited to an audio rendition. Meant to get the print version but you know what happens to those good intentions don’t you?

  6. I really enjoyed Dede Crane’s novel One Madder Woman about Berthe Morisot (it’s from a Canadian independent publisher, so might only be available via epub overseas unfortunately), and I have since read a couple other novels by her and she’s very good in general, not only on this theme. Morisot isn’t someone I “know” anything about, so I was wholly untroubled by any sense of whether or not she was true-to-life based on biography, but I felt like I was in 19thC Paris (and near-Paris) and thoroughly enjoyed my stay there!

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