"Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew" Susan Fletcher
I was intrigued by the blurb for this book - I'm always curious about an author who has either taken a character from a well known classic or figure from history and imagined their "other story", or explored another part or relationship in their life. This story focusses on van Gogh's time at a mental asylum in the South of France in the 1880s and the impact his stay has on the wife of the warden.
No one knows the name of 'the painter' who comes to the asylum in St Remy in the south of France, but they see his wild, red hair and news of his savaged ear soon circulates in the village and comes to the notice of the wife of the asylum's doctor. She feels herself drawn to him and learns that his presence is disturbing - and not just to her either. But back she goes - again and again. Until she is banned, but still she makes her way over the wall, through the garden to talk to this apparently mad and passionate man. And the consequences of her indiscretion, of what van Gogh comes to mean to her, of what it will do to her marriage, her life once she has touched danger and passion will have far reaching effects - both surprisingly catastrophic and tender.
Tender, atmospheric and contemplative are the key words I would use to capture the charm and elegance of this novel. Within moments of reading the opening pages, I was successfully transported to the exact location of the story and embedded firmly in the french countryside at the turn of the nineteenth century. The weather, smells and wildlife are all conveyed with poetic imagery, bringing the reader from a bird's eye view of the area down to the precise setting of St Paul de Mausole hospital; "a weathered ship in a sea of olives and grass...with windows like tiny caves....and blue paint flakes like butterflies' wings of snow." It was an ancient monastery, now converted to a deteriorating asylum where paint peels from the shutters and the depleting staff of nuns do their best to nurse people "so undone the world won't have them or they won't have the world."
Tension is created by the impending arrival of the "mistral" - a "wild autumnal wind that can awaken grief or rage and bring up fears that have been locked away," particularly pertinent within this cast of tormented souls and an isolated wife. It reminded me of Joanne Harris's "Chocolate" and her use of the wind on which to bring a more mystical sprinkling of storytelling.
There is a sadness in the air and Jeanne, the warden's wife, is absorbed in her daily tasks of housekeeping and preparing meals for her rule making, overly cautious, ex military husband Charles now her three beloved sons have grown up and left home. From her window she can see over the walls into the hospital and watch the inmates who will never leave, they are "like the ivy that finds its way onto the powdering stones, seeks out the racks and takes hold." The writing is beautiful; exquisite and enchanting, often written with half finished phrases and fluid lists of descriptive images to effectively capture character, setting and atmosphere with real art. There is a gentle, reflective flow to the narrative.
Van Gogh's arrival sparks an excitement within Jeanne. This man seems different from the other patients. Educated, hard working, suffering from some form of epilepsy or more manic and physical attacks rather than strictly mental suffering. A man who has requested to be here in order to paint. A man who was hounded from his village as he drank too much and wandered around unclothed. Something within Jeanne is awakened.
"Entirely unclothed. Two words. Just two. She'd tucked them away as if they meant nothing. She unfolds them now."
As a woman who has seen nothing new, who has lived next to the asylum for many, many years, listened to her husband's daily updates and tales, she is a woman who shouldn't be shocked anymore...but this visitor promises something new and different. Her first encounter with van Gogh is captured with real vividness. His beard is "a flame of bright orange and red...blue eyes..as blue as the sky....there isn't a colour on his palette that's brighter than his own." She repeated his name to herself. "Vingt Cent." She describes him as a "newly untethered bird of blue overalls and gold". She is truly fascinated by him. With him, he brings life, energy, bright colour, movement and a more sensual feeling to the passages. What is more powerful is the way in which he can read and understand Jeanne like no one else ever has.
As her relationship with van Gogh develops, Jeanne reminisces about her childhood in her father's haberdashery shop, the early days of her marriage, being a mother when her children were young and her friendships. The novel is a reflection on love, loss, searching, longing and then rediscovery. Jeanne is tired of being unseen and this painter helps her to see and be seen again. He reintroduces passion, colour, vitality into her life. This novel is about the broken and the mending.
"I love you.....the words are like a breaking thing....a jar of buttons dropped or a bird flying in an unexpected light."
Van Gogh is not the main character in this story but instead it is the power of his art, his quiet counsel, his presence. This is a mesmerising tale. Well crafted. Beautifully executed. Memorable. I would highly recommend this poignant and entrancing novel.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
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