So here’s another book that has two story lines separated by about 30 years in time. The narrator of the story is Odelle who has come from Trinidad to London to pursue her desire to be a writer. It is 1967. As the book opens she is working in a shoe store when she gets a job at the Skelton Institute of Art. Her new boss is Marjorie Quick (a Bondian sort of name, no?) is enigmatic, wealthy a
nd upper class. She takes an unusual interest in Odelle and her writing career. At her friend’s wedding, Odelle meets Lawrie, a seemingly unfocused young man whose mother recently died. All he has left of her is a painting. Naturally the painting makes it to the Skelton.
Jump to southern Spain, 1936. The Schloss family has just arrived at a run-down estate. Olive is 19, she has just been accepted to an art school in London, but can’t bring herself to share this fact with her parents. They’ve come to Spain for her mother, Sarah’s, health, or perhaps to exile her to avoid social embarrassment. Harold, is an art dealer who trivializes his daughter’s work. Olive wants to escape to art school and yet doesn’t. In walk two young attractive siblings: Isaac and Teresa, locals who offer their services around the estate.
Burton goes back and forth in time – Odelle’ relationship with Laurie, Odelle and her relationship with her boss, the mystery of Lawrie’s painting. The painter is Isaac Robles, a Spanish painter who produced two or three works and disappeared, likely lost in the Spanish civil war. What is the provenance of the painting? How did Laurie’s mother get the painting? Back in Spain, Isaac agrees to paint a portrait of Sarah and Olive. At the same time, Olive hides her own painting activities, showing her work only to Teresa.
Eventually we learn the story of the painter, the painting, and the fate of many of the characters. For me this novel is overwrought, not the writing, but the novel itself. There are too many story lines or potential story lines. The author provides a bibliography that includes art history, Spain and the Spanish civil war and the Caribbean experience in Britain. The story is complex, but in less than 400 pages, Burton can’t give each story line much depth. The result is a story that feels cliché. Racism against Odelle is limited to a few raised eyebrows, or single words. Her romance with Lawrie, her relationship with Marjorie and others feel rushed. Her experience is simply the backdrop to the mystery of the painting.
The story in Spain suffers from the same problem. Teresa and Isaac feel two-dimensional He is the handsome passionate revolutionary caught between a mother and a daughter’s attention. Teresa is the daughter of a gypsy, has stolen trinkets from past employers, she is untrustworthy. Their father is the right-wing strong man who runs the village. Olive is naive, frustrated and of course falls in love with Isaac. Sarah, her mother, is the boozy faded rose, depressive and needy. Harold, her Jewish father, is smart enough to get out of Austria, but seems blind to any other dangers awaiting him and his family.
All that said, if you’re in the mood for a book with a bit of a mystery, it’s a decent read. The plot takes some unexpected twists, early on I thought I knew the outcome, and I was only partially right.