Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

"And somewhere the painter, still, observing"

Amy Sackville's novel Painter to the King fictionalises the life and career of Diego Velasquez the official and favourite court painter to Spain's Philip IV.

Through both biographical and art history elements Sackville brings to life the meteoric rise of the talented painter who moved from Seville to the court of Madrid in pursuit of artistic success. 

Enabled by the drama of the court and the audacity of the King, Velasquez has opportunity to paint quotidian scenes from the inner sanctum of the court as well as grand portraits of the King himself used to control the population and to raise funds for war. Sackville's portrayal of Velasquez is one of a confidante to a king with unlimited access to both the private and public life of the Monarch; "And somewhere the painter, still, observing".

Occasionally the narrative is interrupted by the voice of the author as she follows in Velasquez's footsteps through modern Madrid. This device is confusing at first but works in the context of a historical novel which never loses sight of its unique and distinct voice.

Less successful are the thumbnail black and white details from the paintings which are reductive and unnecessary given that even the simplest of searches will reveal the world of Velasquez on screen 4⭐️

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville published by Granta Books 336 pages

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

"A novella for our times"

'That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature'

The Cockroach takes Kafka's Metamorphosis as the starting point for a novel about a man who turns into cockroach, only in McEwan's world this man is the Prime Minister. With a country bitterly divided by an existential decision, in this case it's the economic theory of Reversalism, a dysfunctional government struggles to find any semblance of a solution.

If this all sounds familiar you'll enjoy McEwan's intelligent satire on Britain in 2019. For literary fans the Kafka adaptation is a bit of a misnomer as there is little beyond the opening scene. 

So contemporary is this novella that the publishers must have literally been stacking the shelves as the ink dried. 3⭐️

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan published by Vintage 112 pages

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman bu Niklas Natt Och Dag

"Dark Scandi-Noir through unique, and authentic, lens"

Niklas Natt Och Dag's debut novel was a huge hit when published at home in Sweden as 1793. The novel's success with readers is doubtless Natt Och Dag's blend of the darkest elements of Scandi crime thrillers with the best aspects of historical fiction. The result is a detective novel like no other on the bookshelves.

Natt och Dag is uniquely positioned to write a novel set in 18th Century Stockholm given that he can trace his own lineage to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Sweden. These are dark times for Stockholm, with Europe gripped by the aftermath of the French Revolution, the establishment is rocked and social unrest creates an atmosphere of fear.

The Stockholm presented in the novel is a filthy city of crime, filth and poverty brought to life credibly in settings such as 'The Perdition', a pub with a  mural on the wall barely visible through the soot  in which 'Peasants and burghers, noblemen and priests, join hands around a skeleton who is playing a fiddle as black as tar'.

The story is told from the perspectives of several characters whose truths overlap in the narrative. Amputee war veteran Mickel Cardell is first to discover a body in 'The Larder', a lake just South of the city walls. This macabre scene sets the tone for a story that is brutal, violent and horrific throughout. Mickel's investigative partner is brilliant young lawyer Cecil Winge who is so ill with consumption that this case could be the one and only chance for him to make a name for himself.

At times the story loses track at it wends and weaves through Anna Stina's story in the workhouse but stick with it as the plot neatly comes together when the identity of the body is revealed. A strong stomach is required for some of the most macabre scenes, make no mistake.

Dark Scandic-Noir with through a unique and authentic historical lens  4⭐️

The Wolf and The Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag published by John Murray 416 pages