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A lost painting in a crumbling mansion

Olivia Glazebrook on a new work of art fiction

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

16 July 2008

12:00 AM

The Bellini Madonna Elizabeth Lowry

Quercus, pp.304, 16.99

This is a curious book: not exactly likeable, but certainly intriguing, and definitely accomplished. It is a debut novel, but doesn’t feel like one at all. It is smart, bold and surprising, with nothing of the crowd-pleaser about it; in fact it might irritate, or disgust, just as easily as it amuses.

A disgraced professor of art history, Thomas Lynch, believes that there exists an uncatalogued painting by Giovanni Bellini, of the Madonna, and that it is hidden somewhere in a dilapidated English country house named Mawle, a house owned for generations by the Roper family. By scheming and subterfuge Lynch manages to worm his way into the house, but having rather smugly cast himself as the cunning scholar hoodwinking his philistine hosts, Lynch realises that he is the one being deceived, held captive by a combination of sexual promise and a limitless supply of grappa. Nevertheless, rather than abandon the whole sordid business, he continues to rootle through the house (and the family’s history) to try to find the painting, and with it some sort of professional and personal redemption. (And, as it turns out, one is forthcoming; the other is not.)

At first the story feels familiar, and perhaps even a bit obvious, but it soon becomes unexpectedly seedy and develops into a ghoulish cross between I Capture the Castle and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is much more interesting. I had only middling enthusiasm for solving the puzzle of the painting, and in fact the author herself seemed sometimes to tire of her plot, but my interest was held by her rather repulsive characters: Thomas Lynch is, for a first- person narrator, a pretty grubby sort of person; Anna, the mistress-in-waiting at Mawle, is an odd mix of Madonna and fishwife, suffering Lynch’s long-range attentions and then his sticky pawprints; her ten-year-old daughter, Vicky, though given to baffling conversational impulses is probably the most normal of the bunch, having no agenda of her own, and Harry, the gardener (to whom Lowry gives an awful, curdling, ‘yokel’ accent), is a sweating, shirtless brute. The machinations of this collection of charmless individuals manage, because of the writer’s flair, to be quite gripping. It is a curious thing.

Having Thomas Lynch for a narrator certainly gives the story some kick. In real life he would be intolerable, but as narrator of this macabre little fiction his grubby habits (‘My student … collected his dignity along with his trousers and lodged an official complaint’,) veer between entertaining and repellent. It is rather like reading a book narrated by Malvolio. When we hear about Lynch’s youth — and in particular his schooldays — we realise that his unspeakable ways have their roots in an unpalatable childhood, but nevertheless, for him to write, ‘Her mouth had tasted dry and faintly sweet, like a child’s’, and for the reader to imagine that he might well be speaking from experience, is an unsettling state of affairs, to say the least.

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