Another complicated, multi-layered plot from English novelist McGregor (The Ice Child, 2001), this time concerning an upscale art appraiser obsessed with the work of a mad Victorian artist.
Catherine Sergeant left a promising position at Bergens in London some years ago when her usually dependable husband, Robert, took an accounting job in the countryside. Now working at a fancy auction house in Dorset, she feels baffled and betrayed by Robert’s sudden, inexplicable, but clearly intentional disappearance. A subtle, intelligent writer, McGregor is not satisfied with dwelling on the domestic crises of a newly abandoned wife. Catherine has entertained a fixation throughout her art career with Victorian painter Richard Dadd, an early genius who was incarcerated in mental asylums for 40 years after cutting his father’s throat with a penknife. Grieving over Robert, Catherine meets John Brigham, an eccentric, wealthy architect 20 years her senior who lives in a gorgeous Arts and Crafts cottage in the area. Grandson of the artist’s attendant at Bedlam insane asylum, John happens to know quite a bit about Dadd and even possesses a secret cache of his work. Startlingly, Catherine reminds the architect of a character in one of Dadd’s paintings. To further confound the rather contrived plot, John suffers from a mysterious, romantically fatal heart ailment, adding urgency to his affair with Catherine. The novel would disintegrate in less capable hands, but McGregor deliberately builds her narrative and manages to invest it with suspense by alternating between the contemporary story and grim glimpses inside Bedlam in the mid-19th century as Dadd paints his fanciful masterpieces. The author also offers just enough detail about chilly, callow Robert to attract and repel. Ultimately, however, the promise of John’s jealous, unstable sister, Helen, to reveal family skeletons stuffed in the closet (or, in this case, under the house’s floorboards) throws the story verily over the top.
An intriguing, ambitious literary work that will reward more patient readers.