THE SENSUALIST by Barbara Hodgson


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Obvious echoes of Kafka and subtler whiffs of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling resound throughout this tantalizing metaphysical mystery, the second illustrated novel from the Canadian artist, photographer, and author of The Tattooed Map (1995). The protagonist and narrator, Helen Martin, is an art historian who specializes in “medical illustration” and who suffers harrowing physical and emotional dislocations while traveling across Europe in search, at first, of her errant husband Martin Evans, a freelance journalist who’s scarcely part of her life anymore. On a train to Vienna, Helen meets the grotesque, menacing Rosa Kovslosky and almost immediately deduces that the older woman is somehow enacting a succubus-like exchange of body parts with her (while blandly reassuring the dumbfounded Helen that “We all lose parts of ourselves from time to time”). The contents of a mysterious box left in her keeping, a series of encounters with shady (when not positively demonic) reality instructors and accomplices, and her (probably correct) inference that Martin had been investigating art forgeries all lead her to Budapest and Munich, among other locales—and to the inconclusive conclusion that the machinations of “a wicked man who would do anything to turn the world of art on its ear” have exposed her to the influences of people who reach from beyond the grave to set old wrongs right and exact vengeance. If all this sounds oppressive, it isn’t—because Hodgson writes crisp, resonant, brainy sentences and filters a wealth of information through the consciousness of a heroine both intelligent and self-deprecating enough to realize she’s a peculiarly vulnerable Western Alice adrift in an amusingly sophisticated and corrupt old European Wonderland. Further interest is provided by an intricate puzzle involving 16th-century Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius and by a plethora of gorgeously spooky anatomical illustrations. First-rate literate entertainment—and one of the year’s most replete and unusual fictions.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8118-1906-X
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Chronicle
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1998