No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, April 30, 2005

#37: The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque -- Jeffery Ford

New York, 1893: the artist Piambo, at the height of his career, takes a commission to paint Mrs Charbuque, the twist being that he is not allowed to see her: he must build up a picture of her from the stories she tells him. Meanwhile, a series of grotesque murders is baffling the police, and Piambo's friend Shenz, once a successful painter himself, is sowing the seeds of his own fate.

This is the sort of novel that had me continually advancing theories about what was happening. Mrs Charbuque herself is fond of deception, so there are plenty of red herrings. No one is what they seem, and there are many layers of truth and untruth. I'm not sure I've disentangled them all yet.

Piambo's sin is hubris: he repeatedly compares his art to God's. Of course he is brought low.

There are echoes of Greek mythology -- the Sibyl, and Medusa -- and of various 19th-century novels: portraits in the attic, the beast that walks amongst men, etc etc. There are tricks and entrapments and themes that recur: eyes that no longer see (Piambo's particular fear), the scent of nutmeg ("the smell of self-satisfaction: a pervasive aroma of nutmeg and mold"), hands that are not, or not just, hands.

I'm not sure how to classify this novel: it's not quite fantasy, because I don't think there's any magic in it, yet it has a fantastical sensibility. It's a very good read, and Piambo, though not exactly likeable, is a fascinating character.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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