Thanks to Virago and to Net Galley for providing me with a free copy of this novel in exchange for an unbiased review.
There are historical (and artistic in this case) figures that set imaginations alight. When I read the description of the book I liked the premise. Rather than being a straight biography of Vincent Van Gogh this novel is built around one episode of Van Gogh’s life, his stay at Saint-Paul-de Mausole, an old-monastery converted into a home for the mentally ill. The story, a third person narrative, is not told from the point of view of the painter, but of Jeanne Trabuc, the wife of the warden, Major Charles Trabuc. She’s the mother of three boys and two girls, but her surviving sons (the girls died at birth) are now grown-ups and have left the family home. Her husband is busy most of the day trying to run the hospital that’s slowly decaying, and her life has become routine and tedious. There have been no new patients for years and she is intrigued by the painter since she first hears about him.
The novel isn’t full of action. Jeanne observes the world around her, and from her thoughts we know she’s always been curious and a woman whose life has spread outside of the boundaries of her everyday life thanks to her imagination. The arrival of the painter brings back memories of her childhood and her dreams of exploring and doing things that others might view as inappropriate or daring. She ignores her husband’s rules and the small town’s gossips and conventions in order to get to know this man. In the process, she learns not only about herself, but she also gains a new understanding of her husband and their marriage.
The Van Gogh we meet in this novel is a man consumed by his art, fond of his brother, seriously ill, but hopeful, at that point, that his illness will improve and he’ll be cured. He is eager to record not the important people and the pieces considered of historical or architectonic interest, but the landscape, the flowers, a moth, olive trees, and everyday people. He finds value and beauty in all things. He only offers Jeanne brief snippets of his life before. The odd mention of flat landscapes in Holland, streets in Arles, a woman he loved, and the incident that brought him there. He paints; he suffers several bouts of his illness and eventually leaves to be closer to his brother and his new-born nephew and under the care of a new doctor. He dies shortly after leaving the monastery of a self-inflicted wound.
The descriptions of the landscape, the seasons, the hospital, and the interactions between the characters are beautiful and poetical. You feel the heat, smell the lavender and the paint, caress the stones and the silk of the yellow dress, listen to the cicadas, and above all, understand this woman’s feelings and experience her emotions. Although I’ve never visited Saint-Paul-de Mausole, now a museum, I felt as if I had, and it is clear that the author is very familiar with the place and has lived and breathed the environment she describes.
I loved the lyrical writing, the feeling of being immersed both in the place and inside Jeanne’s brain and even her body. The characters are consistent, believable and complex human beings. My only doubt was how well Jeanne’s subjectivity, as described on the page, fits in with the background provided. She is a woman who left school at a young age and spent most of the time in the company of a servant with limited social graces and of her father. Her only other contact with the outside world was with the clients of her father’s shop and the people she might meet in her lone walks. She has little formal education (Van Gogh tells her off for leaving school at such a young age, as it was her own choice) although knows how to read and write. But the story, as mentioned before, is not written or told by her in the first person and the author is, in a manner similar to Van Gogh, highlighting that poetry, inspiration and beauty can grow and be found anywhere.
Fletcher acknowledges in a note that she did plenty of research on the subject and tried to be accurate with regards to Van Gogh’s illness and his work whilst at the monastery, but although Jeanne Trabuc and her husband existed (as do their portraits by Van Gogh), the rest of details about their lives are part of her creative (and indeed poetic) license.
Although this is not a book for lovers of action and plot, it is not a difficult or slow read. This is a beautiful, contemplative and touching novel, and a pleasure to read and savour.