Tag Archives: Art in fiction

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of 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. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.

The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:

And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development

As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey: A study of a marriage

Cover imageI’m a great fan of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s writing and was delighted when The Narrow Land turned up. It’s been quite some time since The Lives of Women and I’d wondered if there was a new one from her in the offing. This beautifully jacketed book, adorned with Edward Hopper’s ‘Sea Watchers’, spans the summer of 1950, one of many he spent with his wife, Josephine, at their Cape Cod summer home. Dwyer’s novel explores the marriage between these two artists – one acclaimed, the other not.

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 is also an artist, her attempts to secure an exhibition frustrated. Her waspish outspokenness and inability to bite her tongue have won her a reputation yet she longs to be accepted. Into this walks ten-year-old Michael, a German war orphan rescued by the charity set up by the Kaplans, the Hoppers’ neighbours. Traumatised by the war, Michael is not quite the summer companion Mrs Kaplan had envisaged for her grandson, spending much of his time on his own until he meets Jo with whom he forms an unlikely connection. When they’re invited to the Kaplans’ annual Labor Day party, Jo is both eager at the prospect of having an audience to impress and reluctant to be seen as simply a wife rather than an artist in her own right. The taciturn Edward has his own reasons for attending having spied a possible muse in Katherine Kaplan after a summer of straining for an image that will form the centre of his next work.

Hickey’s novel is such a pleasingly nuanced piece of writing. It would have been easy simply to focus on Edward Hopper but Hickey chooses to explore the character of his wife from whose perspective a great deal of the narrative is delivered. Jo’s waspish tirades, which occasionally degenerate into physical fighting, leave her incapable of kind words or displaying the affection she feels but her connection with Michael reveals another side to her, curious and engaging. The Hoppers may be centre stage, but Michael is the quiet star of the show, his plight explored with sensitivity and compassion. The well-meaning Kaplans, suffering their own wartime losses, offer hospitality to this child who has witnessed what to them is unimaginable, yet fail to understand what he’s been through and how that might affect his behaviour. All of this is couched in Hickey’s subtle yet precise writing, unshowy and often appropriately painterly:

The zest of summer still on the air, the roadsides plush with wildflowers that don’t yet know their days are numbered

He never even raised his hand to comfort his slapped ear

Some of these days he can hardly remember. They seemed to have slipped through the cracks in the floorboards as soon as he got out of bedCape Cod Morning, 1950 Edward Hopper

Hickey’s novel ends with Edward Hopper finding his long sought inspiration in an unexpected place, resulting in ‘Cape Cod Morning, 1950’.

Reading The Narrow Land brought to mind Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, which also sees a young boy striking up a friendship with two artists married to each other – Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh whose work met with the acclaim that Hickey’s Jo Hopper so desperately craved.

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark: A grand hoodwinking

Cover imageIt was its setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. I’m a sucker for novels set in my favourite cities: New York, Amsterdam and, in this case, Berlin. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

In 1923 Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Julius finds himself falling under Matthias Rachmann’s spell, easing the misery of his acrimonious divorce with the balm of Matthias’ esteem. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose American royalties have protected him from the ravages of rampant inflation. His dearest possession is a painting by the artist which his wife took when she left together with their son. As the relationship between the two men deepens, Matthias seeks Julius’ seal of approval for more artworks until an incident between Julius and a young girl strains it to snapping point. Emmeline is a talented artist who loses herself in Berlin’s decadent partying, eventually finding work as an illustrator in 1927. When she attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out. By 1933 the Jewish lawyer who defended Matthias watches as Berlin falls into the Nazis’ grip, reluctant to leave yet fearful for his and his wife’s safety. As his work dwindles away he begins to examine Matthias’ case again.

From her Author’s Note it’s clear that Clark’s novel closely follows the trajectory of the Wacker case, reimagining it and fleshing it out through three vividly realized characters from whose perspective she tells her story. Matthias’ duplicity is signaled from the beginning of his carefully fostered relationship with Julius whose public approbation he needs to enact his breathtaking fraud. The art establishment, with its tight-lipped unity in the face of Matthias’ hoodwinking, is smartly skewered and the depiction of Berlin’s streets full of brownshirts emboldened in their ant-Semitic abuse is chilling. Mid-way through I began to wander if Clark would manage to knit her three perspectives together but it works. An absorbing novel which perceptively explores human vanity while depicting a city on the brink of what will become a catastrophe for the world.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: Art and fakery

Cover image I’m not sure how I managed to miss Dominic Smith’s novel last year, although the hardback edition’s jacket is somewhat off-putting. In his author’s note Smith tells his readers that the eponymous Sara is loosely based on one of the first women to be admitted to St Luke’s Guild in the 17th-century Netherlands, explaining that he wanted to explore the life of female artists whose work is so often unsung. The result is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: Sara’s 17th-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000.

‘At the Edge of a Wood’ is Sara de Vos’ only known extant painting. It’s been owned by the de Groot family for centuries but never exhibited. In 1957, while Marty and Rachel host a charity fundraiser, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the original. It takes Marty some time to realise what’s happened and when he does his investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student stalled in her research who has become an expert conservator. Posing as someone else, Marty engages Ellie as an advisor, helping him to put together a collection. He can’t help but admire her passion for art and soon their relationship takes a turn which may be revenge or the beginning of something else. Decades later, Ellie has become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career about to be celebrated in an exhibition which will have ‘At the Edge of a Wood’ as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, its owner has decided to bring the painting from New York to Sydney himself. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same painting to the gallery’s director. At the peak of her career, Ellie has been brought face-to face with her past. The story of the painting and its creator is woven through Ellie and Marty’s narratives.

Juggling three narrative strands, each of which inhabits very different periods, is a tricky structure to pull off but Smith manages it with sure-footed deftness, linking all three neatly and satisfyingly together. His writing is elegantly crafted, the descriptions of the 17th-century Netherlands particularly evocative and appropriately painterly. There’s a nice thread of suspense running through the novel as we wonder how Ellie will resolve the dilemma her youthful indiscretion presents decades later. Beautiful writing, expert storytelling and erudition lightly worn combine to make Smith’s novel that rare though often promised thing – a literary page-turner, both entertaining and illuminating.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos  was a particularly timely read for me given the exhibition running at the Holburne Museum in my home town this year. It’s about the Bruegels whose peasant scenes are instantly familiar to anyone with the slightest interest in the art of that period. Pieter the Elder died when both his sons – Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder – were children suggesting that his mother-in-law, Mayken Verlhust, known for her miniatures and watercolours, had been their teacher rather than their father. The exhibition celebrates ‘The Wedding Dance in the Open Air’ from the Holburne’s collection which was previously thought to be a copy but has now been expertly verified as the work of Pieter the Younger. Flemish painting combined with unsung female influence – albeit a century earlier – you can see why Smith’s novel seemed so apt for me.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume: ‘Barely there’

Cover imageSara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Deeply rooted in the natural world, it’s filled with wonderfully poetic descriptions. The sheer musicality of its language captivated me. I was, of course, hoping for the same from Baume’s new book given that it, too, seemed to have its feet firmly planted in nature. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world: in Baume’s debut Ray finds solace in One Eye the dog who becomes his first and only friend; in A Line Made by Walking Frankie is an artist, lost and unable to find a footing either in art or in life.

Twenty-five-year-old Frankie finds herself on the floor, face pressed to the ratty carpet of her bedsit, reluctant to move, listening to the noises of the neighbours she’s never met. Putting the childhood she wishes she could re-enter behind her, she left home to study art in Dublin where friendships begun in hope faded away. After graduation she found herself a job in a gallery, part-time and short-term, restoring its walls to a pristine white whenever a scuff appeared, but that’s over now. She has just one friend who she says goodbye to in their time-honoured fashion washing down a box of Black Magic with copious amounts of red wine. Her mother appears the next day and takes her home where Frankie languishes until she decides she needs to be alone, offering to house-sit her grandmother’s increasingly dilapidated bungalow, left empty and unsold since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin one day, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness.

Baume structures Frankie’s narrative around the photographs which comprise her project. Each chapter is made up of Frankie’s thoughts, memories of childhood and her life in Dublin, observations about the world around her, and descriptions of artworks reflecting her preoccupations. Their fragmentary nature works well, conveying the sense of a mind in disorder. The writing is characteristically striking: ‘By means of her brown paper bags, the shop woman shows me which purchases I ought to be ashamed of’; ‘Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head’; ‘The pills are just a new sort of sadness… …Softer, slyer’. There’s an aching feeling of loneliness and distress running through the novel conveying Frankie’s debilitating depression and her mother’s quietly careful, concern. Baume liberally peppers her narrative with descriptions of conceptual art works, amplifying Frankie’s musings. Some of these are very effective, in particular the eponymous work by Richard Long who specialises in ‘barely there art’ which sums up Frankie’s tenuous existence perfectly, although there were a few too many for me. It’s an unsettling novel, deeply affecting, and its ending came as a surprise.

Blasts from the Past: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003)

Cover ImageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Anyone who’s had more than a passing conversation with me about books will know that this is one of my favourite novels. It’s sublime but despite several re-readings I’ve never written on it in any detail. I think most bloggers will understand what I mean when I say that it’s far harder to write about a book about which you are completely passionate rather than one that’s simply very good. Below is a brief synopsis but What I Loved is about very much more than those few sentences can convey. Its themes are all-encompassing: art, love, family, friendship, work – life.

The novel is written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with Bill Weschler whose work he first discovered in a New York gallery when Bill was a complete unknown. So impressed is Leo with Bill’s work that he tracks him down and their lives become entangled. Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons both born the same year but whose lives take very different turns.

Hustvedt’s writing has an extraordinary depth. Her descriptions of Bill’s work are wonderfully vivid. She brings to it an art historian’s training coupled with superb descriptive skills. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you’d like to read another besotted blogger’s views you could nip over to Biisbooks where Belinda’s been on a bit of a Hustvedt binge.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss: Adventures in the New York art world

Cover imageWhat to read when you have a house full of carpenters and decorators? Even when they’re as polite, careful and quiet as they can be, they’re still disruptive. With the good old British rain pelting down outside there’s not much else to do but retreat to the one room whose windows are not being replaced, stick some earplugs in and find something that looks both absorbing and unchallenging. Molly Prentiss’ debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 with its catnip period New York setting seemed just the ticket.

It begins on New Year’s Eve, 1979. Parties are being held all over the city, two of them setting up connections which will play out through the rest of the novel. At one, thrown by a doyenne of the New York art world, James, an art critic for the New York Times who experiences the world in a multitude of trippy sensations and colours, is in attendance with his pregnant wife, Marge, the breadwinner of the two. He catches a glimpse of Raul, an Argentinian artist whose sister we’ve already met on her way to a political meeting in their home country in the novel’s prologue. James is momentarily distracted by Raul as is the party’s hostess who thinks she spots a great talent in the making. Raul takes himself off to a bar where he meets Lucy, a beautiful young woman from small town Idaho, new to the city, persuading her to come back with him to his squat where a much more uproarious party is in full swing. It’s a fateful night for all of them: Marge suffers an accident; Lucy falls head over heels in love; James’ fleeting sight of Raul in striking colours is the last time his synaesthesia will register, robbing him of his celebrated, idiosyncratic way of experiencing art.

Prentiss tells her story from the point of view of her three main protagonists in turn, bringing them closer together as their paths crisscross the New York art world. The novel hinges on fate and coincidence: when James wakes up to find his world drained of colour, he’s devastated but a chance viewing of Raul’s portrait of Lucy reawakens his synapses, leading him to make a terrible mistake later. Lucy’s presence in New York has been predicated on the flimsiest of signs. And everything happens on a Tuesday. It’s the kind of framework which can try my patience but I found myself sufficiently engrossed not to mind. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses. All this unfolds against a backdrop of 1980s New York City – gritty, grubby and considerably more edgy pre-cleanup. The novel has its flaws – the impressionistic ‘Portrait’ sequences didn’t work for me – but all in all it’s an entertaining, absorbing read with a nice appearance from our old friend redemption at the end.