Title: The Painting
Author: Alison Booth
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction/Literary
Publisher: Red Door Press
Published: 15th July 2021 (28th July Australia)
Synopsis: When Anika Molnar flees her home country of Hungary not long before the break-up of the Soviet Union, she carries only a small suitcase – and a beautiful and much-loved painting, of an auburn-haired woman in a cobalt blue dress, from her family’s hidden collection. Arriving in Australia, Anika moves in with her aunt in Sydney, and the painting hangs in pride of place in her bedroom.
But one day it is stolen in what seems to be a carefully planned theft, and Anika’s carefree life takes a more ominous turn. Sinister secrets from her family’s past and Hungary’s fraught history cast suspicion over the painting’s provenance, and she embarks on a gripping quest to uncover the truth.
Hungary’s war-torn past contrasts sharply with Australia’s bright new world of opportunity in this moving and compelling mystery from acclaimed novelist Alison Booth.
Anika Molnar has fled Communist Hungary months before the fall of Communism and the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, opening the Eastern Bloc, post-World War Two Europe to Sydney, where she lives with her aunt Tibilla and is studying part time to become an architect. When she left, she was accompanied by a suitcase and a painting of a woman with auburn hair, wearing a blue dress. As Anika meets people whose families have also been touched by the turbulent years of World War Two and its destructive and uncertain aftermath, the painting is stolen. Anika then embarks on a journey to discover the identity of the painting, find out more about the artist, and the provenance of the painting and how it fell into the hands of Anika’s family – and who originally owned it? This mystery begins fairly early on in the book, and takes Anika all the way back to Hungary following the fall of the Berlin Wall, where she witnesses her family, once bound by the laws of Communism, navigating a new world – whilst she has to balance what they know with what she seeks – so will this journey give her the answers that she seeks about the painting, or will she be left with more questions than answers after speaking with her parents and Nyenye?
The latest novel from Alison Booth is a reflection on the role of family and art in our lives, and the role that history that can feel distant, but really isn’t, has as well. The characters in this book – both major and supporting are not far removed from World War Two – from the occupying powers such as the Germans and then the Soviets, to deportations and the sinister undercurrent of the Holocaust echoes throughout the book and the characters that Anika interacts with, learning more about the history of the painting as she seeks to find out who has taken it and why.
This is one of those mystery novels that is gentle yet filled with intrigue about the idea of art theft and who owns what and how art enters the hands of people who end up with the paintings. It touches on the significance of what it means to have to leave everything behind and start over and standing up against governments that rule with an iron fist, and contrasts this against the freedom and openness of a country like Australia, and how what we live through can impact how we view the outside world, or a country we do not know much about.
It allows the reader to discover the truth about the painting as Anika does, and this is what drives the narrative, pushing Anika forward as she encounters journalists and other people who have an interest in the painting, and what it means when she finds out the truth behind the theft, and is confronted by truths from people like Daniel that make her rethink what she has endured. At the same time, it ruminates on the idea that everyone suffers in a different way and any experience we have shapes who we are and the life we work to make for ourselves. The history is peppered throughout and held back at times before being revealed at the right time.
This book is one that captures mystery, art and the scars of history and war in a way that evokes sympathy and the complexities of life, without lying blame at the feet of the characters, but rather at those that have forced the characters and their families into the situations they now find themselves in. It is one of those books that reveals something about us as people and the events, the times and the places that shape us. These kinds of seemingly quiet books bring much more to the conversation than you might think – and it is through reading between the lines and piecing what you are not told outright together with what Alison does tell us in a drip feed, slowly revealing what we need to know. This worked extremely well, allowing the book and story to evolve as it should, and ensuring the reader pays close attention to the little things that really pack a lunch and bring the story to life. Another great book from Alison Booth.