Hermann follows up her well-received debut (The Cure for Grief, 2008) with a sensitive novel about a crucial turning point in the life of Vincent van Gogh.
Shortly after being dismissed from his post as a lay preacher in a Belgian mining town, van Gogh stopped writing to his younger brother, Theo, for 10 months, the only gap in their voluminous correspondence. As Hermann imagines it, the passionate, awkward, unfocused van Gogh knows he’s once again disappointed his parents, and a visit from Theo—comfortably ensconced at Goupil’s, the art dealership where Vincent once worked—makes it clear that his brother too is worried about him. “[D]on’t you want improvement in your life?” Theo asks. “[Y]ou’ve changed so much that you’re just not the same any longer.” This loss of faith by the person closest to him unnerves van Gogh, already shaken by his encounter with the grim realities of mining life and his inability to provide the soothing religious reassurances his father doles out as a minister. Hermann combines an account of Vincent’s long walk toward Paris to see Theo in May 1880 with letters describing his transformative stay in Belgium, which he plans to deliver by hand so his brother can understand what has happened to him. Hermann quietly shows van Gogh drawing compulsively as he trudges miserably through the countryside, poor, sick and starving but always looking with wonder at the world around him. Nightmarish memories of the oppressed miners whose plight he couldn’t ameliorate slowly open up into the realization that “This is life; this is my life. I am witness.” We know, although Vincent does not, that he is on the road to achieving the apotheosis he spoke of in happier times with Theo: “the way an artist could succeed at portraying a feeling in an image…translate not just the beauty of it but the exact joy that we felt.”
Finely wrought fiction eschewing the usual clichés about artistic inspiration in favor of deeper, more organic understanding.