“Trust dies but mistrust blossoms” – Sophocles
- Book: The Painting
- Location: Budapest, Sydney
- Author: Alison Booth
I have to admit that this book didn’t really take me in the direction, or on the journey I had thought it was going to, as I incorrectly assumed from the premise that this was going to be an investigation by the authorities into a missing work of art and its possible subsequent retrieval.
However, whilst the painting was still clearly the focal point of the premise, the story was much more a unique and unconventional work of cultural fiction, driven and directed by the detective skills, of Anika, the owner of this work of art, as its disappearance piques her interest and curiosity about its past identity and heritage, almost to the point where it becomes an all-consuming obsession for her, from which, only the truth will set her free from the terrible places her thoughts lead her and the wartime atrocities she imagines her family might have been involved in.
Anika’s story was packaged beautifully and fitted very neatly into a relatively short book, where there were no wasted words or lengthy passages to grapple with. Yes, at times it did feel a little formulaic and I might have enjoyed a much more leisurely reminiscence about Anika’s Hungarian family life, pre-Australia. However, taken as a whole, it said all it needed to and offered a short, but insightful glimpse into a vignette of a country once at war and fighting for its very existence against its much larger subversive aggressors and the overwhelming force used on an already bruised and battered population; whilst highlighting the determination and steadfastness of a family to survive, against all the odds, with the hope of finding an increasing sense of peace, calm and safety in the months and years to come.
Anika’s journey to join her aunt, who has built a new life for herself in Australia, is poignant and inspirational. For whilst Anika is homesick, it is not for her previous life, but entirely for her family, who she misses with all her heart. News from Hungary though, does portend better days of freedom ahead, when perhaps, as well as her making the trip home to see them, there may come a time when the family can make the journey across the ocean and visit Australia, to see for themselves the life and opportunities Anika is creating for herself.
The dual location aspect of the story worked exceptionally well, especially the way in which it was formatted into two distinct halves, rather than switching back and forth. The fact that the timeline remained ‘real-time’ constant throughout also added to the realism and authenticity of the journey, although I had to keep reminding myself that this was very much a story of the late 1980s and not from a more modern time, especially as the author did such an amazing job of keeping the narrative and descriptions authentic and true to the era.
Meanwhile, the emotional trauma from the loss of the painting troubles Anika so much, that despite all the difficulties she might have to overcome to make such a trip, she is unable to rest until she returns for a short holiday to the country of her birth, to discover for herself the secrets of her grandmother’s treasured ‘gallery of art’ and the origins of the painting which was gifted to her via her deceased uncle and which was the subject of the subsequent cruel theft.
This well structured story became more multi-layered and textured as it progressed, as new and alternative options became available to Anika in her search and quest for the truth about her ‘stolen’ painting. The emotional intensity of the narrative and dialogue was palpable, the air was constantly crackling with tension, as the stress and strain ratcheted up notch by notch for Anika, especially when she doesn’t know who to trust, so ends up by trusting no-one, which leaves her feeling isolated, alone, highly vulnerable and susceptible to being taken advantage of, which she soundly is, by the ever dubious motives of the story-seeking press, who push a truly naive Anika to her limits and intrude into the private life of her family, with complete disregard for their feelings. Along with the lies and duplicitous nature of his cavalier behaviour, that Jonno also toys with Anika’s feelings and emotions only serves as a point of fact about the press truly deserving the dubious reputation, which so often precedes them.
Such behaviour also makes Anika even more sceptical when the attentions of another potential suitor are turned on her. Can she trust her own feelings, or his actions. Are his intentions towards her genuine, or is he also playing silly self-centred games with her fragile state of mind? Once Anika can clear her head of some of the negativity she has heaped upon herself, she can take some valuable time to work out where her life is going and how she wants to embrace her future.
The narrative was observationally descriptive and rich in detail, whilst the dialogue was intuitive, fluid and perceptive, offering a real sense of time and place to the point where I could imagine myself shadowing Anika on her travels, eavesdropping on her conversations and sitting quietly whilst she wrestles with her own personal demons in quiet solitude.
My suspect list for the perpetrator of the crime was continually expanding and changing, and although I hadn’t quite worked out every detail and nuance of their motive, also in spite of the several red herrings thrown into the mix, I did identify the culprit some time before the official reveal. In fact the name I had in the frame didn’t appear to feature on anyone else’s radar at all, which was more than a little surprising!
The almost complete disinterest of the police to the burglary, despite the subsequent valuation of the painting, was staggering to say the least and if the ending hadn’t happened quite as it did, I have no doubt that this would have remained an unsolved case for a very long time!! Alison did an excellent job of really making me dislike them all to a man, almost to the point where if I could have got my hands on any one of them, a resounding kick up the rear end would have been obligatory!
The rest of the characters, although well drawn and defined, were really not easy to connect with or relate to and I never found myself totally investing in them. Each carried their own emotional baggage, which made them very guarded, complex and often very vulnerable, as raw passion ran deep and keeping closely guarded secrets was second nature to them, each for their own reasons. Aunt Tabilla was probably the most well adjusted of this diverse character cast, and she is, as she always has been, Anika’s mentor and champion
The conclusion of Anika’s story and brief journey into the world of high finance art, was brought to a natural and satisfying conclusion, where there were no real winners or losers, any indications of wrong-doing were set to rights in a way which was filled with heartfelt and compassionate empathy for everyone concerned. Anika of course, walked away with her own prize, but you need to read her story for yourself to discover what that was!