Odelle from Trinidad has lived in London for five years working in a shoe shop with her best friend Cynth, hating feet and London and the casual English racism and longing to be a writer. Then, in 1967, she gets a dream job in an art gallery and she meets Lawrie who has a painting with a dubious provenance to sell. She falls in love with him, although that path has the usual bumps along the way. But is he honest? Is the painting what it seems?
Interspersed with this narrative is the story of Olive, living in the south of Spain with her neurotic mother and her art dealing father. Olive longs to paint but her father insists women cannot be great painters. They are staying on the Duquesa's farm, being looked after by Teresa whose half-brother Isaac is a wannabe painter himself. But the Spanish civil war is looming ...
I loved Odelle's story, told in perfect dialogue and with a really fresh insight into the time. The mystery of the painting and the strange behaviour of her boss, Quick, was a lovely puzzle. So I found the Spanish bits distracting.
But at the start, she hooked me straight away with her first paragraph:
"Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life's course - a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example - are pure luck. And yet, no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play."
And, still on the first page, we are introduced to the wonderful Cynth, no more than a bit part but with unmistakable dialogue: "'Girl, you got to pick your face up,' Cynth would whisper. 'Or you working in the funeral parlour next door?" And later, when Odelle puts on airs: "Cynth would say, 'Oh, because I some sheep and you so clever?'"Nevertheless, Odelle decides that she is "not going to to put shoes on sweaty Cinderellas for the rest of my life." Sweaty Cinderellas! What a wonderful phrase!
And when she meets the boy she fancies, her emotions are summed up in the beautiful line: "My kneecaps porridge, jaw tingling, no hope to swallow." Wow!
Odelle was a virgin before she met Lawrie (in Trinidad, as a schoolgirl, she and her circle viewed those girls with boyfriends as strange exotic beasts and disdain: "Sex was beneath us, because it was beyond us.")
The Spain story starts brilliantly, with the image of a woman in bed after a heavy night before, her clothes tumbled everywhere including "stockings like sloughed snakes".
There is just one moment I wasn't so sure of. When Olive is talking to Teresa she uses the word apogee; "Teresa heard the unusual word, and thought Olive had said apology." Using the rule of 'show don't tell' I thought this would have been better done in dialogue.
Aside from that insubstantial quibble, this was a beautifully written book with a strong plot and great characterisation. I wasn't one hundred per cent convinced by the eventual actions of the characters (Odelle loves snooping but is really bad at it, she always gets caught, but the other characters seem to want to leave clues lying around) and it seemed to me that more could have been made of the strange and elusive behaviour shown at times but that might have made it more of a thriller and less of a good read.
A good book with some brilliant lines. August 2016, 441 pages
Written by the author of The Miniaturist, a story with a rather disturbing and ultimately unresolved theme, set in seventeenth century Holland.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57