A complex exploration of tricky memories.
Relying on an unreliable narrator is always risky, and Banasky elevates that risk to high art in her audacious but uneven debut. First we meet Claire, a gloomy 1950s housewife sitting for a portrait. The painter, Nicolette, attracts and disquiets her—then renders an oil-and-canvas vision of Claire’s suicide that haunts everyone who sees it, including the subject. Fast-forward to 2004, the era of West, whose compulsions propel much of the story. West has schizophrenia, and as he tries to track down a former lover (also a painter named Nicolette) whose work obsesses him, he yanks us deeper into the unsolvable labyrinth of his mind. Each section tackles a different point in the years between the painting’s creation and West’s attempt to recapture it, and though it frequently gets lost or stolen or damaged, Claire’s portrait is the only focal point in a craggy landscape. This can feel either exhilarating or exhausting, depending on the strength of your stomach. It bears mentioning that Banasky writes beautifully and with great empathy: in one quiet sequence, Claire cares for her estranged mother as the older woman succumbs to Alzheimer’s; in another, West pays his parents a surprise visit so he can try to connect with Nicolette via a portal in his childhood bedroom. Come to think of it, all the broken souls here do share one thing besides a sinister painting—a dicey relationship with the past. So if you’re comfortable with uncertainty, you’ll feel right at home in Banasky’s imagination.
Come for the author’s gift with language, but don’t expect it to offer you peace of mind.