Provence, 1889, and there’s a new arrival at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the former monastery at the foot of the mountains that’s now an asylum for those too troubled, eccentric or disturbing to survive outside. The Dutchman, known for his red hair as the fou roux, is the first new patient for years and, though this spells extra work by the already worn-out warden, Charles Trabuc, his wife, Jeanne, is curious, even excited at the prospect of someone new. Although, warned by her husband to stay away from the patients, she can only watch from the cottage overlooking the grounds, she’s eager for change.
walk through all the rooms that were locked to her. To enter those shady, private gardens whose gates she’d stare through, holding their bars, and do hand-stands there.
Although she’s lived at the edge of the small town of Saint-Rémy for thirty years, she misses the colour and vitality of her birthplace, epitomised in her father’s haberdashery shop (p105):
the silks of pale pink or turquoise or apricot; the velvets; the amethysts and jade in brooches. Cochineal, from beetles. Indigo from the far, far east. And that egg-yellow silk that made others gasp at how bright it was, how it glowed by candlelight.
Shopping in the market, she’s an outsider, treated with suspicion by the other women, not only because she hails from elsewhere but through her proximity to the “lunacy” they fear and through her refusal to indulge their curiosity about the inmates. Early in her marriage, the love she shared with her husband staved off loneliness; later she was too busy bringing up three children to care. But now her boys have left home, and the one friend she had has also fled, she’s lonely and starved of affection. She and her husband sleep in separate beds and, at mealtimes, he gives more attention to the newspaper than to her. What she notices most about Charles these days is his rigidity, in both his habits and his insistence on his rules.
Despite this, and Charles’s military background, the asylum operates a benign regime. So the new arrival is free to paint within the hospital courtyard and, later, out in the fields and olive groves. In the summer’s heat, Jeanne takes him a cup of water, even sits on the grass and chats to him. Although her husband has forbidden any association with the patients, both for their sake and hers, and the townsfolk are bound to disapprove, Jeanne is her own woman. Undaunted by his reputation, by the sight of his missing ear or by witnessing his atypical epileptic fit, she regards the Dutchman as a friend.
The pleasures of this quiet novel lie not only in the contextualisation of van Gogh’s well-known paintings, but in the story of a long marriage gone astray and a woman’s later-life coming-of-age. Mutual misunderstandings and each partner’s wish to avoid burdening the other with their individual pain have made the couple almost strangers. The question is whether, when the painter moves on to be nearer his brother Theo, Jeanne and Charles will be left better or worse for having known him. Susan Fletcher’s sixth book, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is published by Virago, to whom thanks for my review copy and slot on the blog tour. I'm delighted to host this novel for my 400th post.
My latest short fiction publication, “A Smell of Paint”, is also about a troubled painter, although not in the league of van Gogh; my second novel, Underneath, to be published in May next year, also features some brightly-coloured artwork and a disturbed and disturbing young man. For other novels I’ve reviewed depicting mental hospitals at a similar point in history, see The Ballroom and Playthings, both rather darker institutions than the one in this novel.
While (if) I’ve still got your attention, I’ll flag up that I’m planning another blog tour of my own to mark the first birthday of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, at the end of next month. I’m looking mostly for reviews and Q&A’s to coincide with a proposed e-book promotion during the last two weeks of July. Do let me know if you can offer a stopping-off point.