"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees
The idea behind this book is interesting indeed: a mysterious painting is found in 1960s London and its origin takes the reader back to a village in Spain in the 1930s. The dual timelines feature two parallel female characters, gallery employee and fledgling writer Odelle Bastien, and aspiring artist Olive Schloss. So many topics are touched upon—art, feminism, identity, race, class, multiculturalism, politics, history—that they are not really explored in depth and each message the author tries to convey is competing to be heard over the others.
The portrayal of the political situation before the Spanish civil war in particular doesn't come across as very convincing, up until the last few chapters when the war actually breaks out. Actually the Spain section in general falls flat for me, which is too bad because there lies the crux of the story, the secret behind the painting. Yet the characters and their motivations don't feel authentic to me, their story failing to engage me.
I was more interested in the companion narrative in London about Odelle. I wanted more to be told about her circumstances as a black woman from Trinidad living in England in the 1960s, struggling to overcome racial and cultural obstacles in order to find employment suitable to her high education. Unfortunately, Odelle's story is mainly a vehicle to describe what happens 30 years after the painting was created and what becomes of the principal people around it.
I remember liking Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist, a little more than this follow-up. But I think a similarity between that book and this one is that both have a good premise yet the execution is somewhat lacking. The flowery, convoluted narration and stilted dialog in some parts of this novel also don't work in its favor.