The provenance of a classic painting is artfully fictionalized in this sparkling second novel from the English author (now residing in Australia) of the prizewinning debut, The Company (2001).
The masterpiece in question is The Raft of the Medusa, completed in 1819 by French painter Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Set in Paris in 1818, Edge’s witty narrative observes the young artist at several crisis points: He’s unable to think of a subject for his next canvas; frustrated by his unequal friendship with colleague Horace Vernet, an untalented mediocrity who thrives by cranking out celebratory depictions of recent historical events; and guilt-ridden over his inability to end the affair in which his uncle (and patron) Charles Caruel’s beautiful young wife Alexandrine has ensnared him. When one of Vernet’s models tells him the story of the Medusa, a French frigate recently shipwrecked from which officers and passengers of note escaped in lifeboats and left “rabble” below decks to their fates—and solemnly declares “ . . . this catastrophe represents a very microcosm of France” (i.e., in the years following Napoleon’s defeat and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy)—Géricault knows he has found his subject. The novel then recounts his passionate research (interviewing survivors, battling officialdom’s determination to suppress embarrassing details), as he devotes his every energy to the composition of an accusatory image that will tell the truth and shame the devils sworn to bury it. Edge tells the story thrillingly, and the urgent pace never slackens. It’s intensely pictorial, keenly sensitive to the artist’s eye for color, form and the swirling context of humanity and landscape that feeds his hungry imagination. And Géricault is a wonderful character—an intensely romantic idealist who’s both compromised and inspired by the pleasures and mysteries of the senses.
A quite literally gorgeous novel and a reading pleasure not to be missed.