The Painting by Alison Booth: The best kind of restitution

Cover image for The Painting by Alison BoothIt’s that old art theme again. Given the popularity of my Five Books I’ve Read… on the subject, it’s clear I’m not the only reader who favours it. Australian author Alison Booth’s The Painting has the additional lure of being partly set in Budapest which I loved when we visited it back in 2017. Set during the last months of the Cold War, Booth’s novel follows Anika who joined her Aunt Tabilla in Sydney four years before, bringing the portrait belonging to her Uncle Tomas with her.

She thought of her mother’s advice. View life like a game of cards; always put on a mask before you begin to play and never let anyone know what’s going on behind it

Anika fled Hungary in similar circumstances to Tabilla who left after Anika’s uncle Tomas was shot in the 1956 uprising. Anika brought with her the portrait of an elegant auburn-haired woman, which her father asked her to pass onto her aunt. Tabilla wants nothing to do with it but urges Anika to have it authenticated. It might be valuable, a way to secure Anika’s financial security, although for Anika it’s a reminder of her beloved family, in particular her grandmother whose living room is filled with paintings. In two minds, Anika waits in line at the state gallery, quickly joined by the chatty Jonno. The curators’ evaluation shocks Anika – her painting is the work of a renowned French Impressionist. Before long, she’s become the subject of a great deal of interest: Jonno pops up all over the place, the museum’s handsome curator invites her out for drinks but when she takes the portrait to Tabilla’s gallery-owning friend she meets with a surprising hostility. When it’s stolen, Anika begins to think there’s something sinister about the painting’s provenance, becoming determined to find out while fearing the truth she might unearth about her family. Throughout it all, a political cataclysm is unfolding, one which allows Anika to return home and talk to her beloved grandmother about the truth behind this beautiful picture and its chequered past.

She was beginning to feel shallow-rooted, as if she might be blown away in any breeze that might spring up  

Booth unfolds her carefully constructed, intricate plot, from Anika’s perspective, throwing in red herrings here and there, while exploring the consequences of totalitarianism and war. Anika second guesses everyone’s motivation, adept at covering her own feelings, provoking puzzlement from the open and inquisitive Australians. It’s a circumspection resulting from her own clash with the Hungarian authorities and her family’s constant caution, not least her grandmother with her bolted front door and closed living room curtains. Booth weaves a nicely taut thread of suspense through her novel, pleasingly resolved at the end. Altogether a smart, absorbing piece of summer reading with a cast of perceptively drawn characters and I see Booth has a backlist to explore which I’m hoping is available here in the UK

Red Door Press: London 9781913062651 297 pages Paperback

23 thoughts on “The Painting by Alison Booth: The best kind of restitution”

  1. Great review. This sounds very good; I have been reading a fair few books (though oddly most for younger readers) around art in the last few years, my favourite among which so far was Wings Over Delft.

    1. Thanks for that, and for the recommendation. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, sadly, but I love looking at art which seems to have overflowed into fiction. Artists and their subjects often have interesting lives to explore.

  2. I may add this one to the list, as I’m very fond of novels involving art-related themes. I wasn’t previously aware of your “five books about ***” feature, so enjoyed looking at your list there as well. It was fun to see that you, too, liked Michael Frayn’s Headlong! I’d sort of forgotten about Siri Hustvedt (terrible! she’s so talented) and I wasn’t aware of the book you listed (that one definitely goes on the TBR) but I have read her Blazing World, which also deals with themes associated with art, with an emphasis on gender. Anyway, I do hope there’s a chance you expand your “five books about” to “ten books about”!

    1. Now there’s an idea! I do already have another Five Books on the stocks about art for when there’s a gap to fill. Absolutely love What I Loved while I admired The Blazing World and Headlong was such fun. Any art-themed recommendations welcome…

      1. My main recommendation (a you say, the art theme is very popular) is Maria Gainza’s Optic Nerve. I read it last year and am thinking about a re-engagement (never reviewed it — I’m lazy– but it deserves more notice). It’s wonderful, a type of autofiction in which Gainza uses various paintings to loosely tie in with episodes of her life (or maybe not her life! Gainza downplays the novel’s autobiographical aspects). The plot is non-linear, you learn the “plot” of the narrator’s life out of sequence as you go along (just like we learn about the lives of our friends) and, I must admit, the book as a whole reminds me of those collections of loosely linked short stories that are so popular now (and which I’ve gone from disliking to admiring).

  3. I don’t think I have read many books that centre around art, though not for any particular dislike of the theme. I do rather like the idea of the possibility of a sinister painting.

  4. Not an author I’ve come across it the past, but it sounds as if she has quite a body of work for you to explore. Such an evocative setting for a novel involving art!

  5. Thanks for fab review of The Painting, so glad you liked it! My backlist is indeed available in the UK, and can be ordered through most bookshops or through the larger outlets like Book Depository, Waterstones etc

  6. Have come across a few references in recent weeks about Hungarian books/writers/history and this only further flares my curiosity. Plus, as you say, the art theme!

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