In this compelling debut novel, an art authenticator and an art historian are employed by a famous, reclusive painter to sell a never-before-seen portrait, leading them to discover devastating secrets two sisters have kept from each other, and from the artist who determined the course of their lives. How do you find someone who wants to be lost?
Sisters Natalie and Alice Kessler were close, until adolescence wrenched them apart. Natalie is headstrong, manipulative-and beautiful; Alice is a dreamer who loves books and birds. During their family’s summer holiday at the lake, Alice falls under the thrall of a struggling young painter, Thomas Bayber, in whom she finds a kindred spirit. Natalie, however, remains strangely unmoved, sitting for a family portrait with surprising indifference. But by the end of the summer, three lives are shattered.
Decades later, Bayber, now a reclusive, world-renowned artist, unveils a never-before-seen work, Kessler Sisters-a provocative painting depicting the young Thomas, Natalie, and Alice. Bayber asks Dennis Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen Jameson, an eccentric young art authenticator, to sell the painting for him. That task becomes more complicated when the artist requires that they first locate Natalie and Alice, who seem to have vanished. And Finch finds himself wondering why Thomas is suddenly so intent on resurrecting the past.
In The Gravity of Birds histories and memories refuse to stay buried; in the end only the excavation of the past will enable its survivors to love again.
Impresive, especially for a debut novel.
I really enjoyed this one. It was the writing that grabbed me – Guzeman has the enviable ability to weave a spell with their writing, to create exactly the right kind of atmosphere at the right points, to settle you good and deep at the heart of their fictional world. They create characters with depth, complexity, characters you recognise and know – that avoid being too cliched. When you think they are one thing, they prove to be another. Everyone has reasons for their actions and in their own heads everyone is the main character of their own story and understands this perfectly.
If I have a complaint it’s that the plotting is fairly ordinary and obvious. Most of the ‘tiwsts’ were telegraphed far too early on in the novel, meanign I became frustrated with the slowness of the characters to reach the obvious conclusions. Also, despite the excellent characters, I was a little uncomfortable with the return of my old un-favourite, the ‘nasty slut’ in the form of Natalie. Repeat after me, children – “Being sexually active is not a bad thing. Liking your appearance is not a bad thing!” Only you can stop slut-shaming.
Guzeman clearly knows a great deal about art and the world of art galleries. I don’t, so I can’t make guesses as to the accuracy of her portrayal, but it came across as genuine. Guzeman manages to avoid info-dumping her experience into the novel, instead weaving her knowledge in to the book in a natural, organic way. It informs the work, it doesn’t structure it.
All in all, an impressive debut novel. I will be looking for more things by Guzeman in the future. 4 out of 5.
Review copy given for free by Simon and Schuster.