This is the second novel I’ve read recently in which two women become close to each other, one knowing very much more about the other. In Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow, a half-sister is entirely ignorant of her new friend’s relationship to her. Ilaria Bernardini’s The Portrait sees a celebrated writer whose lover of several decades has been struck down by a stroke, inveigle herself into his house by commissioning his wife to paint her portrait. Both irresistible premises for me.
The feelings both for the painter and the sitter are contradictory. It’s an intangible search for who knows what
Valeria hears of Martin’s stroke over the radio in her driver’s car. She’s in Paris, her latest collection of short stories completed, neither the title nor the jacket yet decided. Distraught, she hatches a plan to find her way into the house where Martin lies in a coma: instead of an author photograph she will commission his wife, Isla, to paint her portrait. After a good deal of persuasion and an intervention by her troubled teenage daughter, Antonia, Isla agrees. Valeria sets herself up in a flat close to Martin’s Holland Park house and the sittings begin: Valeria desperate to catch sight of her stricken lover; Isla seeking a distraction from her anxiety and grief – each very different from the other. Before long, Valeria is a part of the household, welcomed by the striking Argentinean housekeeper, becoming Antonia’s confidante and exchanging intimacies with the warm, welcoming woman seen as her rival throughout the long affair which has shaped both her life and the image she presents to the world. When she answers one of the many texts she’s been ignoring from her estranged mother summoning her to Rhodes, Valeria understands it’s time to go back to the place where her sister died when they were children. The story comes to a close in London with a Valeria rather different from the one with which it began.
She was going to try to let go of her struggle for a purpose, her vanity. She was going to try to not play a character
Bernardini explores loss, love and storytelling in this intimate novel told from Valeria’s perspective. A multitude of stories, memories of her meetings with Martin and of the sister, ever present in her mind despite the four decades since her death, are woven through the few weeks Valeria sits for Isla. She’s a pleasingly complex character, apparently strong and independent, rejoicing in her cosmopolitan life as an acclaimed short story writer, while in reality riddled with a constant questioning insecurity. It’s also a novel about writing – Valeria is a stealer of stories, not above rifling other people’s lives even at the risk of being exposed. There’s a quiet thread of humour running through Bernardini’s novel leavening the loss and hurt – Valeria’s over-empathising assistant is a triumph with her adulation and need for hugs – while the question of how much Isla really knows hovers tantalisingly over the last half. Altogether an enjoyable read – a wee bit too long for me, but that’s a minor quibble.
Allen & Unwin: London 2020 9781911630401 420 pages Hardback