Thursday 22 February 2018

Review: Painted Ladies by Siobhán Parkinson

New Island, €13.99, paperback

Painted Ladies is the second adult novel by Siobhán Parkinson, Ireland's first children's laureate and winner of multiple awards for her children's books. Her first, The Thirteenth Room, dates from 2003.

Art-house cinema aficionados may have already encountered a version of Painted Ladies in a Swedish film, Hip Hip Hurrah (1978). Its title was borrowed from a painting by Soren Kroyer, the best -known member of an artists' colony at Skagen in remote northern Denmark in the 1870s.

Parkinson's tale centres around Marie Triepcke, who is transformed from merely being Kroyer's model to becoming his wife and an established artist. Parkinson is intent on writing a story, breathing life into, rather than rehearsing, the bald facts of her characters' biographies.

So we follow the fortunes of Marie and her entourage as she builds her life, first in Paris where she studies art, then through her numerous visits to Skagen, her marriage to Kroyer -- and its failure -- and her encounter with her subsequent partner, musician Hugo Alvén. We recognise Marie's mettle early on when she persuades her family that she should study in Paris.

Parkinson skilfully maps her progress from girlish simplicity to profound unhappiness and a decidedly unmaternal self-absorption. As the story ends, we contemplate the damage emotional neglect has wrought on her young daughter, Vibeke; and how the sins of the parents are visited on their offspring. Marie, the painted lady -- the model -- has morphed into a Painted Lady butterfly.

The Skagen artists were technically innovative and their lifestyle equally unconventional and bourgeois. They dismiss respectability, but glory in status. This paradox gives rise to the plot's often melodramatic twists. Characters conceal illegitimacy; mothers turn out to be aunts and vice versa. Children are reared by whoever will have them. Marital infidelity is de rigueur. One artist, Holger Drachmann, consorts with another woman as his child dies at birth; a painted street lady accosts Kroyer at the opera. Parkinson adopts a matter-of-fact approach to the shenanigans, and avoids sentimentalising the spectre of premature death ever-present in this pre-antibiotic era.

The demons of mental instability and syphilis lurk in the novel's shadows: could Kroyer's son, born to a scheming woman who gambles on Kroyer marrying her, have inherited it? In one memorable scene Marie meets Kroyer's insane mother, who exaggerates her instability, thereby, Marie concludes, indicating how sane she is. In this topsy-turvy world, the apparently mad know what it is to be human.

This book may be read as a thrilling adventure, but it reflects on broader issues such as the impossibility of the perfection of the life and of the art. The story also interrogates how realist art, such as the Skagen school's, tries to reproduce reality, and how, in the process, it imposes order on it. One artist, Michael Ancher, teaches fishermen how to pose in order to look more 'natural'. In the process of 'tidying' the real to fit it within a canvas, art alters that reality. Parkinson's highly polished mirror captures her characters but also her own skills as a novelist.

Mary Shine Thompson is former dean of St Patrick's College

Irish Independent

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