It’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