09-05-2019

“A picture is a poem without words” goes the saying, and if you agree, you’ll probably enjoy these books:

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Theo Decker is viewing an exhibition of the Dutch Masters at Metropolitan Museum of Art, when a bomb rips through the building, killing his mother and other bystanders. In the confusion, Theo ends up taking an exquisite little painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Without his mother’s loving protection, Theo’s world begins to unravel, as he drifts first from the luxurious Park Avenue apartment of his friends, to a neglected villa on the outskirts of Las Vegas with his deadbeat dad, and then finally back to New York under the protection of an antique furniture dealer, whose business partner also died in the museum explosion. Theo lurches from trouble to disaster, but his hopes and dreams are always centred on The Goldfinch. However, surprises await him on that front as well.

The explosion in the novel mirrors an explosion in the 17th century, in which much of Fabritius’ work was destroyed. The Goldfinch won numerous awards when it was first released, including the Pulitzer Prize and it is currently being made into a motion picture.

  • How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Like The Goldfinch, this novel revolves around a real work of art; frescos that were originally in a palace in Ferrara, Italy. Uniquely, it is told from two points of view that are connected. Depending on the copy you receive, you may first read either the story of George, a 16-year old girl mourning her mother in contemporary London, or that of Francesco della Cossa, the young Renaissance painter who created the frescos.

Both George and Francesco have distinct voices. George is smart, opinionated and wry, while Francesco is poetic, indeed often disjointed and vague, and as you read on, you begin to understand why. The fresco, which is now in the British museum, is the one tangible thing that ties George to her mother, just as for Francesco, it is the one real thing that tethers him to life.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This breathtaking work of non-fiction starts off as the author’s meditation on loneliness. Left alone in New York City through circumstances beyond her control, Olivia Laing is drawn to the lonely figures and outsiders who documented loneliness in cities. In particular she touches on the works of 20th century artists Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger.

Over the course of several chapters, she explores how these four men chronicle isolation in the city, whether it is through Hopper’s cityscapes, Warhol’s tapes, Darger’s fantastical pastiches and my favourite David Wojnarowicz’s seminal work, Author Rimbaud in New York. Laing writes of each man’s troubled, oftentimes tragic life with a level of pathos and understanding that draws you in.

  • The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

We’re back to fiction with the character of Nora Eldridge, a quiet, forgotten art teacher whose life is changed when the artistic Shahids move into her neighbourhood. At first, she takes an interest in the young son, Reza, but soon finds herself sharing studio space with his talented mother Sirena and going on walks with his dad, Skander. There is such a thing as too close, however, and Nora ends up crossing all sorts of boundaries. The full consequences of her actions are only revealed much later, long after the family have left and Sirena has risen to fame.

The Woman Upstairs raises all sorts of questions about what truly constitutes art, and how far one must go for one’s art. While some critics have panned the descriptions of the art, both Sirena’s and Nora’s, I found these interesting. Sirena creates a wonderland out of waste material, while Nora fashions precise little miniature scenes or dioramas featuring literary characters like Virginia Woolf.

By Shailaja Prashanth

Shailaja Prashanth is a digital copywriter and avid reader who devours everything from literary fiction to billboards on the road.