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 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 independence, 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.
The 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