Category Archives: reviews

Review: Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

After her fabulous debut, The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic brings us another Alex Clayton mystery set in Melbourne’s art world.

Set in 2000, a year after the events in The Portrait of Molly Dean, art dealer Alex Clayton and her best friend, art conservator John Porter, are visiting the Melbourne International Museum of Art (the NGV in fictional disguise) for a preview of their latest exhibition.

A bittersweet note is already struck as it’s clear Alex has a mysterious but clearly unhappy past with MIMA. Alex’s discomfort is soon shoved aside first by the collapse of a gallery worker which damages the key piece for display (the real 1864 Landseer painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, which remains undamaged by fiction) and soon after, the death of the gallery’s senior conservator Meredith Buchanan in front of the very painting she’s meant to be repairing.

Alex and John immediately notice some oddities about Meredith’s death and some of the items found where she died. The police, unfamiliar with the nuances of the art world, aren’t receptive to their doubts, inclined to believe the death a suicide.

As naturally nosy people, Alex and John decide at once that they’ll poke around some of these discrepancies and oddities they’ve found to see if there’s anything in it, and to hand over any evidence of murder to the police.

We all know how that tends to work out in a mystery novel.

John is quickly employed to oversee the restoration of such a valuable painting, giving Alex reason to mooch around the place as well, so they have plenty of opportunity to ask questions, go into cupboards looking for skeletons and generally be amateur sleuths.

The real Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, makes a fictional appearance. Image from Wikipedia.

Alex and John’s long friendship is shown to wonderful advantage as they collude in how to follow up their hunches and suspicions. Their whole relationship is given more texture by the personal problems they’re each facing. Alex’s art dealership isn’t providing financial stability, and hanging around the gallery is making her reflect on that lost chance at MIMA all those years ago when the unnamed scandal saw her kicked out of the gallery. John’s difficult marriage is an earthy personal counterpoint to Alex’s professional woes.

One of the great charms of Kovacic’s books is how she brings her personal knowledge and love of art history to her work. Alex is surely channelling Kovacic in her capacity to talk with engaging passion and clarity about what a picture or artist means to her without disappearing down a well of art wank. (That said, there’s a hilarious scene in which Alex and John deploy art wank strategically for investigative purposes which is a favourite!)

Painting in the Shadows is nicely paced, balanced well between the mystery, Alex and John’s personal and professional troubles, the many other relationships, and the world of art. It’s clever and engaging, the protagonists are likeable and the denouement neat.

After the resolution to the mystery, enough personal titbits remain to fill in the background for another book.

There is going to be another book, isn’t there Ms Kovacic?

Buy Painting in the Shadows (RRP$29.95)

Review: The Madness of Grief by Panayotis Cacoyannis

It’s London, 1969 and 16 year old Jane doesn’t know it yet, but her life is at a crisis point. Between the moon landing, her widowed magician father, the great Mr Magikoo’s girlfriend Mia Mia, Jane’s Auntie Ada and her best friend Karl, Jane’s about to grow up in a rush.

Panayotis Cacoyannis’s The Madness of Grief is more than a coming of age story – it’s an exploration of notions of truth, perception, forgiveness and the complexity of relationships. The backdrop of the moon landing, with one minor character questioning whether it’s a hoax, is just one aspect of the story’s preoccupation with the idea of what is real versus what is not.

The Madness of Grief

While the moon exerts a pull on the underlying idea of what’s real, an older event holds the key to the peculiar relationships of Jane’s life.

Jane’s mother was killed in a stage accident ten years ago during a Mr Magikoo stunt. Val’s death is entwined with her father George’s stage persona, forming the foundation of the themes of The Madness of Grief. Almost nothing is what it appears to be and how the characters understand their lives is a huge interleaving of guilt, lies of omission, blame, pain and misunderstanding. Throughout the narrative, what seems to be true is regularly stood on its head, and then upturned again as layers and layers of secrets and unspoken histories are revealed.

The story takes time to hit its stride, but the moment Jane walks in on Mia-Mia in the bathroom to discover her father’s girlfriend is a man, everything you thought you knew is thrown into the air.

In one particularly eventful night, Jane’s life is thrown into disarray, visited with violence, loss and even more revelation. Much is made of the disruption and pain that evolved from her mother’s tragic death and how grief has twisted blame, guilt and love as a result.

Some events which seem unforgivable are leavened with kindness and viewed through a prism of life having more than one truth to be told. So many of the protagonists are influenced for good or bad by others in their life – Karl’s sense of entitlement fostered by his controlling mother; Mia-Mia’s choices in the face of discovery, George’s guilt bringing him to hide his love for his daughter behind a crass facade; Ada’s cruel pleasure in blaming George for Val’s death, in part a response to how their mother favoured George’s needs.

Feelings can turn on a pin when sudden realisations and revelations fundamentally alter what we think we know. Some truths are brutal and best left unsaid; some lies are kindnesses; some acts are less cruel than ill-informed and sometimes, we’re willing to forgive that cruelty when it’s part of something larger.

Some of the abrupt narrative switches back in forth in time are difficult to follow to begin with, but the result is an intriguing and layered study of the vagaries of human nature. Those layers are densely packed and it can take a while to unpack, but what’s clear is that nobody is just one thing – not even the worst thing they’ve done. And even when the reader is less willing to forgive than Jane is, you can at least agree that foolishness and grief can make you do mad things.

Buy The Madness of Grief

The Madness of Grief (Amazon US)
The Madness of Grief (Amazon Australia)
The Madness of Grief (Kobo Audiobook)