Those familiar with Iain Pears' sweeping historical thrillers, An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio, can be forgiven if they finish his newest work, the sparse, economical The Portrait, and wonder aloud if this portrait-in-miniature was written by the same author. Rest assured, it was. While Pears' latest may not share the grand scale of his two previous intricately erudite novels, it would be a mistake to confuse brevity with lack of depth. Like the most potent works of art, The Portrait contains multitudes within its slender frame.
Set during the twilight of the Edwardian era, this is the rendering of two friends and rivals during a long-postponed reckoning. William Nasmyth is England's most renowned art critic; Henry MacAlpine, his one-time protÅ½gÅ½, is a Scottish painter of declining artistic stature. Years ago, MacAlpine went into self-imposed exile on a lonely island off the northwest coast of France just as his star was ascending in the fashionable art circles of London. His hermit-like existence is transformed when his old mentor arrives on the island to sit for a portrait. What transpires dredges up painful and pleasurable memories for both men: memories of betrayal and youth spent in the heady days when the post-Impressionism of Matisse and CÅ½zanne revolutionized the art world. Yet like a painting that conceals as much as it reveals, MacAlpine's attempt to capture Nasmyth's essence in his portrait has implications that reach deeper than the canvas alone.
The slim novel is told entirely from MacAlpine's perspective, and Pears drops nearly all quotation marks so that the prose is as direct as a brushstroke. And when a sinister tone enters MacAlpine's narration, one can sense the raw, emotional impact that gathers like a violent storm coming over the sea. Richly evocative of its historical milieu, The Portrait is study in presentation and rising drama that rewards multiple viewings. And readings. Todd Keith is an editor at Portico Magazine in Birmingham, Alabama.