Buried past, family secrets

2011-05-18 00:00

WHEN we first meet Arthur Bailey, the central character of Craig Higginson’s accomplished novel, he seems a melancholy, curiously innocent man. Once a moderately well-known landscape painter and war artist of the Anglo-Boer war, he is now — the opening of the novel is set in 1945 in impoverished, post-war London — an elderly recluse. When he falls for the pretty girl who moves into the bedsit next door, it initially seems harmless, even charming.

But as Arthur’s story unfolds, in the first-person narrative of 1947 and in the third-person telling of events in South Africa in the final years of the 19th century, he is revealed as an unreliable­ narrator, and a less naive figure than he first appears to us to be.

Aurthur had followed a friend, Christian Hamilton, to South Africa, attracted by his sister Carwyn. She seems lively, charming, and surprisingly ready for dalliance and more. Except that sometimes she seems to withdraw from Arthur into a place he cannot reach. And the Hamilton family has other secrets that will only be revealed slowly and shockingly. What happens to Arthur, both in the horrors of war which takes him from Johannesburg and Durban to Spioenkop and Balgowan, and in his personal life, will shape the man in London 50 years later.

Arthur has buried his past, becoming in the process a husk of a man, but the arrival of the beautiful Felicity awakens old feelings. Things spiral out of control, and Arthur, appearing to the reader as creepier and more unpleasant by the moment, seems to be heading for disaster. Higginson has created a character who fascinates and repels by turns, but who, through the juxtaposed narratives, never entirely forfeits our sympathy. We can see how he got to where he is.

The writing style is sometimes a little mannered but it fits both the character of Arthur and the two time periods that the story spans.

The Landscape Painter is a profound and disturbing look at love and lust and their effects.

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