by M. R. Willison…….
(Seattle: Lake Union Publishing, 2018)
In a dramatically cinematic opening, this latest of Rosalind Brackenbury’s beautiful novels begins in a part of Paris transformed into a move set an earlier 1950s. Like Brackenbury’s previous novel, “The Third Swimmer,” the novel is not only set in France, but it too uncovers an English family mystery. There is a conundrum—in fact, several–to be solved. true of any novel, of course, but this is about a family, aux Mystère Frontenac of Mauriac.
The narrator, a recently-arrived visitor, suddenly spies her English father in the impenetrable crowd beyond a street barrier. Ah, but he died months ago. Or did he? Will she see him around the Paris of the new millennium, where she has inherited an apartment of his; she herself has just arrived from North America in a swirl of indecision about her marriage, her goals, her life. Even more troubling, here and there in Paris in the next weeks she does think she spots her father, always dressed in his familiar dark tweed jacket, always beyond her reaching and more surely identifying him.
Ghosts or not, who wouldn’t want to be in Paris? Everybody loves that fascinating city (well, almost everyone), that metropolis of refined pleasures with their elegant, yet earthy, delights. Here at last, our English-born 40ish protagonist has left her adult life and marriage in Florida to whirl us across Paris, to her (and obviously her author’s) favorite haunts– neighborhoods and streets, restaurants, bistros, and cafés, boulangeries and so much more. Like Woolf, her painterly descriptions of places in the present explore the narrator’s past and future, acutely conscious of inner states as well as immediate surroundings: like Paris (and most of us, including the author, no doubt), she is a palimpsest of contradictions—gregarious yet private, impetuous yet cautious, present yet elsewhere in time and place, confident in her decisions when finally made, but hesitant to make them.
The woman meets and makes friends with those from her father’s other life, in Paris–the ones she knew nothing about. All of her new acquaintances are middle-class urban Parisians, though some have ties to the French countryside, Corsica, Portugal. They are very much of the twenty-first century moment and style, though of course their various generations differ in their outlook on life. All very interesting and charming, they are almost improbably supportive, though busy with their own affairs. One, somewhat younger, even becomes her lover for a while, leading to pleasantly unself-conscious, sexy scenes, à la Colette or even Deneuve, and there is some hope that he will return. All of them display straightforward motives and delicate modes of expression, in contrast to her British precision and reserve and her North American bluntness. Each of these new friends brings new information about and insights into her father, her family, and herself. And they raise other more practical questions, like why someone from the Old World would choose to go live in the United States and especially Florida, even marry a North American, and then how she might lead a double life there and in France.
In fact the protagonist sometimes slips into what seems her author’s own distinct voice and phrasing, and perhaps her mix of British and North American, and even a Key West perspective suggested by the concluding publisher’s notes “About the Author” and her connections there. Not surprisingly, with all this story’s cultural and personal cross-currents, our heroine worries about her own authenticity. Her solution, such as it is, to all her issues is finally an emotionally significant and conclusive one for her.
But this is still a mystery novel. It is even potentially a supernatural one–a ghost story—though perhaps never to be fully explained. Yet at the heart of the story is the calm namesake of the novel’s title and its cover–one of those almost trompe-l’oeil seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings that she and her father had so admired together in what past they’d shared. This one lusciously displays several unopened walnuts beside one already disgorged on a rich tablecloth by a silver nutcracker. Her father has left it, apparently for her, with his just-revealed Parisian paramour, an astute and capable journalist, who offers sage but restrained advice. But there is also another new acquaintance, a sometime colleague of her father who has a disturbingly strongly resemblance to her father, even face to face, but especially on the street. And he has designs on the painting. In the end the author abruptly truncates his further intrusion. But then our heroine sees her father one more time, and this time is able to follow him. In the end will she accost him? Or will she give him up at last?
Much of the plot circles around the heroine’s questions about that painting she has acquired—is it authentic, so who painted it and when, whose is it, what should be done with it, can she keep it? The leitmotiv of the novel, in fact, is the anxious protagonist’s gradual immersion in the mysterious calm of that painting she has apparently inherited. And she is a poet, which may explain her deftness with her own descriptive thoughts, though we see little of her own reported efforts at poems. But Brakenbury is herself a poet, so the descriptions and turns of phrase of the novel itself can be wonderfully evocative or sharp, remarkably blunt or metaphorical similes. And the writing style is light and slightly astringent, and thoroughly propulsive, and well-printed in a excellent unobtrusive font. In some ways this novel is in fact an extended riff on Brackenbury’s highly observant ekphrastic title poem for her own most recent poetry collection, “Bonnard’s Dog.”
In fact, we take away from this charming novel and its realistic outer and inner conversations a series of aperçus on the effects on survivors of the afterlife of death, even its consolations along with our intimations of eternity. Along the way we come to some intriguing lessons on home and motherhood, marital and sibling conflict, these competition and the Other Woman’s challenge, love and sex and their satiation and draining away, the search for identity, purpose, and decisions, and the balancing of needs and loss, all in the form of natural, often realistically disjointed conversation and rumination. In any case, no anguished, repressed Hardyan drama, no (Tom) Wolfean longeurs, no Hemingway bravado. Instead, we are briefly introduced to the work of specific painters, as well as how to establish a painting’s provenance, not to speak of the evanescent (and shifty) joys and perils of being a dealer in art. So this is a thoroughly satisfying, gently provocative exploration on so many levels. And of course above all there are the seductive delights of Paris itself.