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By Will Davenport
New York: Bantam Dell, 2003
ISBN: 0-553-38206-3 323 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2015

A woman painter, Amy Dale, is heading toward Hull on the Humbler River in coastal northeast central England. She picks up a hitchhiker and discovers he’s going to Hull, a place she knows from her mother’s history. She’s never been there, but her mother talked of it constantly. Her family was related to the Dahl’s of Hull. Her name Dale is a modernization of the more foreign name Dahl.

It is April of 2001. Her “passenger” is Dennis Greener. As they talk about where they are going and so on she discovers he is going back to Hull where he has a job working on the rehabilitation of a manor house. Amy is quite surprised to hear about this since this is the very house in which her mother had grown up and which she’d heard about all her life. Dennis, learning she is a painter, and just off on her own, not heading anywhere in particular, suggests she come with him and he assures her there would be a job for a painter for sure. She assures him that she can “paint” in the sense of an artist, and all other manners down to being a house painter if needs be. And thus Amy “comes back” to a home she’s never seen, but heard about all her life.

However, there is a second line of narrative. From 2001 we just leap to 1661 and the journal of Rembrandt. He is an old man then, and in dire financial straits. When some creditors are chasing him around town in Holland, he jumps on a ship at the harbor to hide and while he’s hiding the ship leaves Holland and heads north to Denmark and the broke, old and somewhat confused Rembrandt is stuck.

However, he meets Marfel, who gets him on a ship that will eventually get him back to Holland, but first they are making a journey to England. In the course of that voyage they end up at Hull, and Rembrandt agrees to stay there a work to paint the man of the house of the new mansion going up and that will be in exchange for his passage back to Holland.

Thus begins this novel which flips back and forth in time between the 2001 period and 1661-62.

It’s a bit ironic that I am reading this novel, having had no idea of this structure of the narration flipping back and forth from one time period to another, when just within the past month I have read (and commented upon) another novel which has that same structure. That novel, SARAH’S KEY by Tatiana De Rosnay, was set in France of the 1990s and also in the early days of the Second World War. Both novels had narration that flipped back and forth between the two different time periods. While Sarah’s Key was the first of these two novels I read, actually The Painter, on which I comment here, was published in 2003 while the other novel was published in 2007. Nonetheless, in both cases, I came to enjoy the narration that flipped back and forth between the two time periods, and one of the themes of each work was how to connect the two different periods with a fuller story and explanation of the relationship of the different periods to each other.

In The Painter, it turns out first of all that Amy’s mother’s family had a connection to this very manor house in Hull, and this fascinates her since she’s heard about the house all her life, but never had visited there. At the same time, she needs work and both her economic need and her curiosity lead her to follow Dennis and to actually take a job. Given her unique skills she will be doing some work that is not merely ordinary painting of rooms and such, but to do some touch up on art work and things more fitting to her artistic interests.

Each of the two stories in this novel has its own separate existence. Rembrandt’s story is of his accidentally being shipped off to Denmark and then his trying to figure out how in the world to get back to Holland with no money at all. Once they do get to Hull he has committed to doing a painting of the master of the house in order to “pay” for passage back to Holland, thus he enters into the life of the manor house and in the building, but he does not use his name of Rembrandt, but just allows he is a painter from Holland.

In that particular story he meets the poet Andrew Marvell who lives in Hull and is associated with the folks at this manor house, and a rivalry between Marvell and Rembrandt begins to form, both as to the question of which of them in the better artist, Marvell with his poetry or Rembrandt and his painting. Furthermore the woman of the manor house happens to be very beautiful and these two “artists” are vying for her attentions at the same time.

Meanwhile, Amy is thrown into a situation in which she is the sole woman working with a group of fairly rough workmen and builders. They are all living in the currently vacant manor house while the renovation is going on, and, being both beautiful and the sole woman in the place, she is pursued by quite a few of the men. However, the “competition” as it might be viewed, focuses primarily on Dennis, the hitchhiker she picked up who brought here there, and Don, a worker who has been injured some time earlier, but is still working as he can at the restoration work. Both are “after” Amy, though her romantic interests are primarily with Don and not Dennis, yet a whole drama emerges in the competition between them.

Of course, at the same time, the connection with the possibility that Rembrandt did actually visit this house when it was being built in 1661-1662 and perhaps did some painting there leads to the connection between the two time periods and Amy, Don and others are deeply involved in trying to discover if there is anything at all in the old rumors of Rembrandt having been there.

Both stories are gripping. The search of the historical records and physical evidence at the old manor house to discover if it was indeed Rembrandt who visited and then the question, did he paint while there, is a fascinating mystery.

A bit more mundane is the romantic story and even potential murder mystery that centers around the character Don is also a thriller in its own right, and rather scary at times as well

The novel is well written, interesting, gripping and more than once sent me scurrying to the internet to read this or that about Rembrandt’s life and to search out the geography of Hull, England.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett