My thanks go out to Helen, representing publicist Helen Richardson PR, for saving me a place on this lovely Blog Tour schedule.
I also need to thank the great NetGalley team, for always making life so easy when downloading review copies.
A traumatised young woman confronts her family’s past in an engrossing quest for a stolen painting
Sydney in early 1989, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Anika, a traumatised young immigrant from Hungary, inherits a portrait of an auburn-haired woman.
Could it be of value, and if so, how did something so precious end up in her family’s possession? Anika takes it to a leading gallery where the curators identify it as being the work of the renowned French Impressionist artist Rocheteau.
Shortly afterwards, however, the painting is stolen.
Soon Anika receives a shock about its origin that links her ever closer to the two men she met the day she had the painting assessed, the curator Daniel and the enigmatic Jonno. As these men insinuate their way into her life, her suspicions about their motives – grow ever more pressing.
Only by returning to Budapest can Anika finally track down the truth and confront the ghosts of her grandmother’s past.
(Photo credit – Studio Vogue, Canberra)
Born in Melbourne and brought up in Sydney, Alison spent over two decades studying, living and working in the UK before returning to Australia some fifteen years ago.
She trained and qualified as an architect before transferring to Economics. She is Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University, with a PhD from the LSE. She is also interested in public policy.
Alison’s debut novel, Stillwater Creek, was Highly Commended in the 2011 ACT Book of the Year Award, and afterwards published in Reader’s Digest Select Editions in Asia and in Europe. Her subsequent novels were: The Indigo Sky (2011), A Distant Land (2012), A Perfect Marriage (2018) and The Philosopher’s Daughters (2020). She has also contributed short stories to a number of collections.
Alison is very active on social media (Twitter and Facebook) and loves doing radio and other interviews.
“I began to write because I felt driven to, and I carry on writing for the same reason. I find it a challenge, but also a liberation”
“When I first started writing fiction, I had little notion of where my inspiration came from. An idea would bob up, apparently from the ether, and I would run with it. It is still the case that ideas for stories arrive fairly randomly, but now I understand that the milieu in which I place a story relates to the life I’ve lived, the places I’ve visited, and what I’ve read”
Keep up to date with all Alison’s latest news at her website
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PART ONE – CHAPTER ONE
SYDNEY, MARCH 1989
“Aunt Tabilla was banging about downstairs, rattling crockery and crashing saucepan lids like cymbals, an early morning concerto that only Anika could hear. Reluctantly she threw off the bedcovers, stumbled to the bathroom and confronted her green-tinged reflection in the pitiless mirror. After splashing her freckled face with water and finger-combing her sleep-mussed hair, she was ready to greet the day”
“Then he did that staring-into-her-eyes thing, as if trying to use her eyes as a portal to her soul when she suspected it was really her body that he’d like to get his hands on”
“There was such a fine line between genuine interest that made a person feel valued, and voyeuristic curiosity that might easily be construed as prying”
“Sydney folk who lived in a Neighbourhood Watch street thought it made them feel safe, Anika reflected, as she turned off Victoria Road and into Boggabri Street. It had the reverse effect on her, making her feel uncomfortable; were curtains twitching as she walked by, or was she imagining that? When she was almost home, she saw that Mrs Thornton was standing just inside her picket fence, so still she might have been a part of the council furniture, a sculpture like the one that appeared overnight a few weeks back in the pocket-handkerchief park beyond the corner shop”
“You learn a bit about someone, Anika thought, from observation and what they choose to tell you, but you could live side-by-side with them for years and never know who they really were. She herself kept so much concealed, and so too did her parents and her grandmother. Amazing that when she was living at home she hadn’t thought to ask what sort of war they’d had. Tabilla was right when she’d said earlier that young people often never thought to discover more about their families until it was too late. Too late. There were so many questions she wanted to ask her family before it was too late”
“When something was over, you couldn’t have regrets or dwell on the past. Yet the past was not always so willing to let you go. Even though you did all you could to kick it behind you, it could bounce back when you least expected it and knock you hard”
“And anyway, even within a lifetime, memories are limited by the way our synapses connect. Just think, each time your brain pulls out a memory and then files it away again, that memory is altered”
“Leaving home but going back home: once you crossed the ocean you were always on the wrong side. That was the lot of the immigrant, belonging everywhere but nowhere”
“Trust dies but mistrust blossoms” – Sophocles
I have to admit that this book didn’t really take me in the direction, or on the journey I had thought it was going to, as I incorrectly assumed from the premise that this was going to be an investigation by the authorities into a missing work of art and its possible subsequent retrieval.
However, whilst the painting was still clearly the focal point of the premise, the story was much more a unique and unconventional work of cultural fiction, driven and directed by the detective skills, of Anika, the owner of this work of art, as its disappearance piques her interest and curiosity about its past identity and heritage, almost to the point where it becomes an all-consuming obsession for her, from which, only the truth will set her free from the terrible places her thoughts lead her and the wartime atrocities she imagines her family might have been involved in.
Anika’s story was packaged beautifully and fitted very neatly into a relatively short book, where there were no wasted words or lengthy passages to grapple with. Yes, at times it did feel a little formulaic and I might have enjoyed a much more leisurely reminiscence about Anika’s Hungarian family life, pre-Australia. However, taken as a whole, it said all it needed to and offered a short, but insightful glimpse into a vignette of a country once at war and fighting for its very existence against its much larger subversive aggressors and the overwhelming force used on an already bruised and battered population; whilst highlighting the determination and steadfastness of a family to survive, against all the odds, with the hope of finding an increasing sense of peace, calm and safety in the months and years to come.
Anika’s journey to join her aunt, who has built a new life for herself in Australia, is poignant and inspirational. For whilst Anika is homesick, it is not for her previous life, but entirely for her family, who she misses with all her heart. News from Hungary though, does portend better days of freedom ahead, when perhaps, as well as her making the trip home to see them, there may come a time when the family can make the journey across the ocean and visit Australia, to see for themselves the life and opportunities Anika is creating for herself.
The dual location aspect of the story worked exceptionally well, especially the way in which it was formatted into two distinct halves, rather than switching back and forth. The fact that the timeline remained ‘real-time’ constant throughout also added to the realism and authenticity of the journey, although I had to keep reminding myself that this was very much a story of the late 1980s and not from a more modern time, especially as the author did such an amazing job of keeping the narrative and descriptions authentic and true to the era.
Meanwhile, the emotional trauma from the loss of the painting troubles Anika so much, that despite all the difficulties she might have to overcome to make such a trip, she is unable to rest until she returns for a short holiday to the country of her birth, to discover for herself the secrets of her grandmother’s treasured ‘gallery of art’ and the origins of the painting which was gifted to her via her deceased uncle and which was the subject of the subsequent cruel theft.
This well structured story became more multi-layered and textured as it progressed, as new and alternative options became available to Anika in her search and quest for the truth about her ‘stolen’ painting. The emotional intensity of the narrative and dialogue was palpable, the air was constantly crackling with tension, as the stress and strain ratcheted up notch by notch for Anika, especially when she doesn’t know who to trust, so ends up by trusting no-one, which leaves her feeling isolated, alone, highly vulnerable and susceptible to being taken advantage of, which she soundly is, by the ever dubious motives of the story-seeking press, who push a truly naive Anika to her limits and intrude into the private life of her family, with complete disregard for their feelings. Along with the lies and duplicitous nature of his cavalier behaviour, that Jonno also toys with Anika’s feelings and emotions only serves as a point of fact about the press truly deserving the dubious reputation, which so often precedes them.
Such behaviour also makes Anika even more sceptical when the attentions of another potential suitor are turned on her. Can she trust her own feelings, or his actions. Are his intentions towards her genuine, or is he also playing silly self-centred games with her fragile state of mind? Once Anika can clear her head of some of the negativity she has heaped upon herself, she can take some valuable time to work out where her life is going and how she wants to embrace her future.
The narrative was observationally descriptive and rich in detail, whilst the dialogue was intuitive, fluid and perceptive, offering a real sense of time and place to the point where I could imagine myself shadowing Anika on her travels, eavesdropping on her conversations and sitting quietly whilst she wrestles with her own personal demons in quiet solitude.
My suspect list for the perpetrator of the crime was continually expanding and changing, and although I hadn’t quite worked out every detail and nuance of their motive, also in spite of the several red herrings thrown into the mix, I did identify the culprit some time before the official reveal. In fact the name I had in the frame didn’t appear to feature on anyone else’s radar at all, which was more than a little surprising!
The almost complete disinterest of the police to the burglary, despite the subsequent valuation of the painting, was staggering to say the least and if the ending hadn’t happened quite as it did, I have no doubt that this would have remained an unsolved case for a very long time!! Alison did an excellent job of really making me dislike them all to a man, almost to the point where if I could have got my hands on any one of them, a resounding kick up the rear end would have been obligatory!
The rest of the characters, although well drawn and defined, were really not easy to connect with or relate to and I never found myself totally investing in them. Each carried their own emotional baggage, which made them very guarded, complex and often very vulnerable, as raw passion ran deep and keeping closely guarded secrets was second nature to them, each for their own reasons. Aunt Tabilla was probably the most well adjusted of this diverse character cast, and she is, as she always has been, Anika’s mentor and champion
The conclusion of Anika’s story and brief journey into the world of high finance art, was brought to a natural and satisfying conclusion, where there were no real winners or losers, any indications of wrong-doing were set to rights in a way which was filled with heartfelt and compassionate empathy for everyone concerned. Anika of course, walked away with her own prize, but you need to read her story for yourself to discover what that was!
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by publicist Helen Richardson PR.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 4 out of 5 stars!
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