Thriller set in Spain, both in the past and in the present
Talking Location With author Alison Booth – BUDAPEST and SYDNEY
15th July 2021
#TalkingLocationWith…Alison Booth, author of The Painting, set in Sydney and Budapest.
My new novel, The Painting, tells the story of a traumatised young woman, Anika, who in the late 1980s confronts her family’s Budapest past in a quest for a lost painting. The trigger for its plot was an article that I read in a newspaper in 2014, an article about a hidden Budapest art collection, an article that made me think, what if…?
The article was about a secret collection of paintings amassed by a Hungarian butcher and his wife, paintings that they had kept hidden during the Communist period. Almost at once after reading this, the genesis of a new novel leapt into my mind. What if a family had covertly acquired paintings using funds accumulated from black market transactions, what might happen?
I decided to write a story based on one hidden painting. A story that would span three generations. A story that would subtly weave into the narrative the influence of major events that had influenced each generation. A story in which Hungary’s war-torn past would contrast sharply with Australia’s bright new world of opportunity. And I would call the novel The Painting.
The Painting begins in Sydney in early 1989, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. When Anika Molnar flees her home country of Hungary, she carries only a small suitcase – and a beautiful and much-loved painting of an auburn-haired woman in a cobalt blue dress from her family’s secret collection. Arriving in Australia, Anika moves in with her aunt, and the painting hangs in pride of place in her bedroom. But one day it is stolen in what seems to be a carefully planned theft, and Anika’s carefree life takes a more ominous turn. Sinister secrets from her family’s past and Hungary’s troubled history cast suspicion over the painting’s provenance, and she embarks on a gripping quest to uncover the truth.
Over several years, while sketching out a first draft of The Painting and mulling over the intricacies of its plot, I also researched the historical background. This involved reading about World War II, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and the events of the late 1980s before the Berlin Wall came down. I read Hungarian novels and histories of the period, and also viewed online resources, and plagued friends who had links with Hungary.
Landscape is a major character in all my novels, and The Painting is no exception. Once I’d finished the novel’s first draft, I travelled to Budapest to get a feel for the light, the architecture, the people, for the grain of the city.
In Budapest I stepped out each day in my hiking boots, and carrying a camera, notebook and pen, essential equipment when researching a location. My strategy was to explore the old cities of Buda and Pest (on each side of the Danube River) that together form Budapest. The Hungarian National Gallery is located in Buda Castle, and to reach it I caught the funicular railway to the top of Castle Hill. Art is all important to my story, and the gallery houses a very beautiful collection in a splendid location, with views over the Danube and Pest on the other side of the river. Several of the paintings I saw inspired certain scenes in the novel’s development.
On the Pest side of the Danube, under the square outside the Parliament building, there is an interesting museum dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution. Here I learned more about the events associated with the revolution, that ended when the Russians sent in tanks. On the other side of the square, facing the parliament, is an old ministry building pockmarked with bullet holes, where many Hungarians lost their lives, including the husband of one of my protagonists.
Nineteenth century buildings line the streets on the Pest side of the river. My main character’s family live in apartments in several of these buildings, and I was delighted to have a chance to view their accommodation at first hand. Built around central courtyards, with entry through arched carriageways, they are graced with elegant if decayed-looking stairways to the upper floors.
Of course, I visited the House of Terror, where interrogations took place during the fascist and Communist years. I will not dwell on this place here (though it appears in a scene in the novel), for I found it both chilling and deeply claustrophobic. Rather I will end this tour at the Central Market Hall, a splendid 1897 neo-Gothic construction, with its beautiful displays of food, including the strings of garlic and paprika that are important in Hungarian cooking. And important also to Anika, the main character of The Painting, since they are, together with The Painting, a metaphor for the family that she missed so much on leaving Budapest.
Alison Booth was born in Melbourne, brought up in Sydney and did her postgraduate studies in London. Alison’s work has been translated into French and has also been published by Reader’s Digest Select Editions in both Asia and Europe. Stillwater Creek was Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year Award in 2011 and A Perfect Marriage was Highly Commended in the 2019 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards.
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